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Haiti - Six Months After the Earthquake

"We'Ve Lost The Battle, But We Haven'T Lost The War:" Haiti
Six Months After The Earthquake

By Beverly Bell

Truthout - July 15, 2010

http://www.truth-out.org/weve-lost-battle-we-havent-lost-war-haiti-six-months-after-earthquake61321

Haiti during the World Cup is much like my hometown of New
Orleans was during the Superbowl. Don't try to make plans
with anyone to do anything during a game. (In the more cash-
rich New Orleans, the ban on non-game-related activity
stretched back a day or two before a game, because there was
food and alcohol to be purchased and a feast to be cooked.)
I make the mistake of trying to go to a cell phone office
during that time; employees sit hypnotized in front of the
big-screen TV, unwilling to be distracted by clients.

When Argentina, a favorite in Haiti, loses the soccer match,
I can finally conduct my business and leave the store.
People are pouring out from their tents and houses with a
thing or two to express about Argentina's loss.  A group of
skinny men parades in bikinis and wigs. Noontime drunks
shout nonsense at each other. Throngs of mourners dance
through the streets of Port-au-Prince, waving Argentine
flags and palm fronds. Among them, loyalists still smarting
from Brazil's loss wrap cloths with that country's flag
around their heads.

"Thank God it's almost over," my friend Maryse, director of
a special education school, said this morning. "Argentina's
the last team in the competition that anyone here really
cares about, so all this madness will have to stop." Four
Haitians died in arguments after the loss of the Brazilian
team some days prior.

"Soon," a young construction worker on break from hammering
outside my window said, "the [political] demonstrations can
resume." They stopped at the start of the World Cup; people
suddenly had more important things to do. Once the World Cup
is over, too, the popular educator Ricardo assured me, the
electricity that has been guaranteed during the past month
will go back to its standard state of irregularity. It's the
same every four years, he said. "We'll be back in a
blakawout, black-out."

From the cell phone store I catch a taxi to a women's
meeting. Collective taxicabs are identified in two ways: the
red ribbon hanging from the rearview mirror, and the
decrepit state of the vehicle. They are usually the oldest
and most beat-up cars on the road, and it's not uncommon
that a key part gives out or a many-times-repatched tire
blows definitively while en route.  When that happens, the
customers simply patiently climb out and pay the driver,
then catch another cab.

I establish up front that I'm not going to be ripped off.
"Listen, I know it's one zone. I'm just paying a fare for
one zone."

"It's two zones," the taxi driver replies.

"No, cheri.  To Avenue LamartiniSre it's one zone, 25
gourdes. Don't give me the price you make up for blan,
foreigners.

He gives me a circumspect look. "But aren't you a blan?

As usual, everyone in the cab is sharing stories about
evenman la, the event. You hear the word all day long. (In
New Orleans, four and half years later, the same is true of
`Katrina.' My friend Grant, a writer, said that his dream is
to go just one day without hearing the word.) Six months
later, with a little distance and a lot of moxie, many of
the stories of misery have evolved into dramatic tales,
complete with humor. The driver and the four other
passengers wedged into the little Nissan are laughing loudly
at one such account.

I tell them I am amazed that they can laugh. The man against
whom my thigh is jammed says, "If you stay traumatized all
the time, it's not good for you. You have to find joy to
diminish it."

In some ways, everything has changed since the earthquake.
Almost one in seven are living in streets or camps in
wretched conditions. No comprehensive, or even piecemeal,
plan for addressing homelessness has been revealed by anyone
in power, except to move them from one tent city to another.
Hurricane season is underway, but no preparations have been
made to protect those living under bed sheets or pieces of
nylon.

Food aid has been suspended except as "food for work." Water
aid is soon to be suspended, too, since Haitian businessmen
have complained that it is undermining their profits. Many
of the free clinics that were created in the humanitarian
outpouring after the disaster have closed up shop.

Imagine that six months after Hurricane Katrina, New
Orleanians were still trapped in the Superdome and the
Arena. Imagine that they were not given food or even,
usually, drinking water. That they shared filthy port-o-
potties with thousands and that they had to stand in long
lines in the hot sun to get buckets of water for bathing.
That they had no electricity or lighting to speak of, not
even flash lights. That the government had never announced a
plan to get them out of there and back into homes, or even
checked to see how they were doing.

Normal conversations are markedly different after the
earthquake, so many of them reflecting the loss of hundreds
of thousands of friends and family members, and of an even
higher number of homes. For example, in a clinic, a little
girl I'd never seen before approached me and said, a propos
of nothing, "My mother died. My little sister's name is
Timarie. Did your house get crushed?" No. "My house got
crushed."

And this: I was sitting in on a meeting in a refugee camp -
the only blan present - when an elderly woman planted
herself in front of me. In a flat voice resounding with
loss, she said, "I have one son, a strong young man of ten.
He lost his foot in the earthquake.  What are he and I
supposed to do?  A ten- year-old with a stump." Before I
could compose myself enough to respond, she turned and
walked away.

A commission, half-composed of foreigners, today has formal
oversight over Haiti and its reconstruction. (See "Foreign-
Led Commission Now Governs Haiti.) It was elected by no one
and accountable to no one.  It issues no reports, gives no
State of the Union address. There is no number to call to
learn its position on a given topic or to register one's
opposition. I've heard numerous people here bitterly refer
to U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton, co-director of this
Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, as
`president of Haiti.'

But in many ways, Haiti is the same as it ever was. The
elected government and its associates - what is sometimes
referred to here as the political class - are, as always,
apathetic in the face of desperate citizens' needs. One
young woman said to me "the Haitian government is deaf,
dumb, and mute." Ricardo commented, "From the first second
after the earthquake, the government fled. Not the first
minute, the first second."

As they've been for many decades, demonstrations are
(excepting, as mentioned, during the World Cup) one outlet
for the anger of marginalized Haitian citizens, who have no
other advocacy options within the formal system. Citizens
regularly take to the streets to demand housing for the
displaced, good education, and support of national
agricultural production. They have recently protested
violence by the U.N. security mission, non-payment of wages
to state workers and teachers, and the introduction of toxic
Monsanto seeds, among other complaints.

Grassroots organizations still meet regularly to develop
their strategies for political change, as they have
throughout history. Across the country on any given day,
small groups perch on broken chairs under tarps in refugee
camps, huddle amidst rubble in the courtyards of earthquake-
destroyed schools, or sweat under thatched-roof gazebos.
Despite all, they remain convinced that, as the slogan
adapted from the World Social Forum says, another Haiti is
possible - or at least that they can win more justice than
they currently have. They are developing pressure points for
housing rights and protection against rape for those in
camps. Some plan information campaigns aimed at sweatshop
workers, others programs to politicize youth. The agendas
are seemingly endless.

Haiti is the same in much more plebeian ways, too. No one on
the block where I'm staying can breathe for two days because
of the thick and putrid smoke from wood charcoal being made
up the ravine. Flies and the mosquitoes change shifts at
sunset and sunrise, while sweat pulls 24-hour shifts. Pigs
forage in garbage piles downtown. For a few cents, people
purchase from street vendors meals of sugar cane, or fried
bananas, or cassava bread and peanut butter with cayenne.
They wear shoes cracked down the middle of the sole that,
most anywhere else, would have been thrown away long ago.

Boys fly homemade kites and girls carry water. Motorcycles
zip by with as many as five people on them. Salesmen stand
at the front of buses and display jars of dark liquid which
they tell their audience will cure fibroids, high blood
pressure, and eczema. Little boys stand facing out from the
walls to urinate, men stand facing towards the walls to
urinate. Women pull thin flowered handkerchiefs from their
bras and slowly unwrap them to produce crumpled gourd notes.

People insist on giving you a cup of coffee as though they
had nothing else to do in the world. Women walk through the
streets with baskets on their head, chanting in loud voices,
"I got peas, I got carrots, I got cabbage." Pedestrians
pause on the sidewalk to wipe the thick dust off their shoes
with a little scrap of toilet paper, though the shoes will
become filthy again momentarily. Men sit on chairs in
sidewalk barber shops, getting shaves. Girls flap down the
streets in backless sandals, swinging their behinds.
Neighbors break up coupling cats, because who needs more
kittens?

As always, to disarm hostile situations, many make their
voices supplicatory and call each other cheri. In crowded
streets, people anger easily and laugh easily. They engage
in gestures of great tenderness and harsh meanness. They
show impressive generosity and rip off the most vulnerable.

Now it's Saturday night, and neighbors do what they do
everywhere that is big on community and short on funds:
gather on stoops and curbs to talk. Mirlene, who used to
cook for a friend of mine, walks up the street to meet me.
We haven't seen each other since the earthquake, so we
arrange ourselves on a curb, tuck the excess cloth of our
skirts under our knees, and begin with the only possible
topic: the event.

While we're talking, a couple of men come join us. I offer
them my condolences for the loss of Argentina. One lifts his
hands heavenward and says, "We're resigned." Then: "We've
lost the battle, but we haven't lost the war."

"Spoken like a true Haitian," I tell him.

[Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for
over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on
Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance.
She coordinates Other Worlds,
www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and
economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the
Institute for Policy Studies.]

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