Haiti: Amid obstacles and frustrations "things are getting better"

Just outside of Port-au-Prince, community leader Altenor Ronald expressed a mixture of frustration, anger and disorientation as he tried to coordinate the relocation of survivors from the Jan. 12 earthquake into a roadside displacement site.

Haitian quake survivor builds a temporary shelter for her family
A woman digs with a machete as she builds a temporary home in a spontaneous camp for quake survivors. Families continue to move as aftershocks continue, and reports of aid deliveries in one camp will provoke families from other camps to migrate there.

Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

By Chris Herlinger/Church World Service

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Just outside of Port-au-Prince, community leader Altenor Ronald expressed a mixture of frustration, anger and disorientation as he tried to coordinate the relocation of survivors from the Jan. 12 earthquake into a roadside displacement site.

“We have no food, no stoves, people are hungry. I’m in charge and I don’t know what to do,” he said.

One of those he was assisting, Elimeme Jean, said she and others could stay on the land for two months and not a day more. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she shrugged.

In Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast, members of one of many “solidarity groups” of friends and neighbors that have opted not to move to displacement camps and instead to stay together on borrowed land, said they do not know how long they will remain in and around the grounds of Jacmel’s Wesleyan (Methodist) Church. It could be months, even longer, they said.

“How long will it be? I don’t know,” community leader Francilaire Jeudi said. “Nobody knows.”

Nobody knows – it’s a refrain heard often as Haitians mark the first month since the devastating earthquake in an altered and unwelcome world. As they traverse the unknown, not even the immediate future – a day, a week – can be planned.

The dimensions of what happened are now accepted as matters of course. The fear of staying in a house or building for fear it will collapse; traversing around piles of rubble; the embarrassment of conducting private acts in public – these are now all accepted parts of daily life.

Such indignities have also caused anger and upset; some of the many impromptu signs seeking help now not only declare, “We’re hungry,” but also “We’re angry.” Some Haitians believe trauma will be felt by many in later months, possibly creating violence. For women, violence is something to be feared now: Reports of rape at displacement sites are increasingly common.

If many signs are grim, others are less so. Despite logistical challenges and many pre-existing social problems in Haiti, Tommy Bouchiba, acting country director for ACT Alliance member Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, noted that humanitarian aid is getting to those who need it; aid pipelines are opening up; and rehabilitation programs are already beginning. “It is getting better,” Bouchiba said of the overall humanitarian situation.

One reason for the improvement is due to the presence of such groups as members of the ACT Alliance. Since Jan. 12, the ACT Alliance has assisted more than 150,000 people, with the majority being assisted with ongoing support such as water, sanitation, shelter or regular food supplies or meals. Others have received relief items such as cash or hygiene or baby kits.

CWS has provided more than 31,000 CWS Hygiene Kits, some 5,400 CWS Baby Care Kits, and approximately 4,000 CWS Blankets.  For medical support CWS has provided 60 boxes of medical supplies from IMA World Health.  Each box contains enough medicine and supplies to treat the routine illnesses of approximately 1,000 adults and children for approximately two months when placed in a rural clinic.

As part of the ACT Alliance, and working with numerous local organizations, Church World Service is providing assistance for some of the most vulnerable among the survivors of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, nearby Gressier, and in Jacmel and Bainet in the south.

In addition, churches and other civil society networks in Haiti and in the neighboring Dominican Republic are working with members of the ACT Alliance, particularly in locales not reached by other international aid groups. In many areas, local community networks and self- help groups are often the sole providers of assistance.

Prospery Raymond, ACT/Christian Aid country manager, said that the resilience of Haitians and the acts of solidarity and kindness between them have been striking. That, he said, is the foundation on which any international humanitarian support in Haiti – such as that being provided by the ACT Alliance -- should be built.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “Yes, this happened but it has to be seen as an opportunity to rebuild the country.”

ACT Communicator Nils Carstensen contributed to this report.

ACT Alliance  CWS staffer Chris Herlinger is in Haiti on assignment for the ACT Alliance. Church World Service is member of ACT, an international coalition of churches and related organizations responding to emergencies, collaborating in development work, and providing a shared voice for advocacy.

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