Haiti: Voices in the ruins

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A year on from the Haiti earthquake that claimed 200,000 lives, five survivors tell of their ordeals and their hopes

The Rev Enso Sylvert

As if he had not budged since the earthquake, the Rev Enso Sylvert sat one recent morning on the same metal chair under the same tarpaulin, now ripped, where he held court after the disaster.

In the shadow of his collapsed church on Avenue Poupelard, Pastor Sylvert was still sporting a blazing orange shirt and wrinkled yellow tie, still preaching about the end of times.

But his vow to rebuild in 2010 had been tempered by reality. The bank recently foreclosed on the property after he fell disastrously behind on loan payments because his parishioners could not afford donations. Any day now, he said, the bank will be seizing what remains of the church.

Still, the pastor insisted, just as his chorus narrowly escaped death when the church fell, just as his daughter was spared when she stood to answer a teacher's question while the girl who slid into her seat was killed by a concrete block, so, too, would "a miracle" keep the Evangelical Church of Grace alive.

"I am certain - certain! - that we will rise again on Avenue Poupelard," he said. "The events of 12 January destroyed hundreds of church buildings. But did they kill our churches? Ah, no. Au contraire. We don't need roofs to pray. God is our cover."

Pastor Sylvert holds open-air services on property adjoining the church, and many are lured by the oversize speakers that blast his fiery preaching.

Beyond the church, the survivalist spirit along the hard-hit Avenue Poupelard, which pulsed so brightly right after the earthquake, chugs along wearily. People are resourceful, the pastor said, "but they carry their losses inside like nagging sorrows".

Marie Claude Pierre

Deep inside a maze of alleyways in the Eternal City slum, Pierre, 30, shyly welcomed visitors into the one-room shanty that she shares with a dozen relatives — but not with any of her children.

Pierre's oldest son, Fekens, 11, has been living at an orphanage near the American city of Pittsburgh since a week after the earthquake, when he was plucked from Haiti aboard an orphan airlift.

Images of the children's landing in Pittsburgh were broadcast worldwide, but Pierre did not know Fekens was gone until days after he left. By the time she made her way through the disaster zone to the Bresma orphanage, where Fekens and the others had been staying, it was empty.

Speaking softly in a shack dominated by a bookshelf cluttered with stuffed animals, she explained how she had first come to lose custody of Fekens — and her four other children.

She and her ex-husband used to fight and she would flee, battered, to relatives' homes. During one separation, her husband "made the decision to give away our children," she said. She was granted no say, she said, but she imagined that their stay at Bresma, which she visited monthly, would be temporary.

Four of her children were adopted by a French family before the earthquake. Only Fekens, the oldest, remained at Bresma.

After the plane landed in Pittsburgh, the US government assumed legal custody of a dozen children, including Fekens, who were not in the midst of adoption proceedings. Then, in early December, the children were all cleared for adoption. Pierre was asked to sign papers relinquishing her parental rights. She did.

Pierre said that she missed her children. "I hope that one day they will return to visit me," she said.

Daphne Joseph

After the earthquake, 14-year-old Joseph watched as her mother's mangled body was carted off in a wheelbarrow. She was deposited on the doorstep of an idealistic community organisation called Frades, which accepted several dozen orphaned children.

In the spring, Daphne's half-brother's father's girlfriend showed up to claim her and moved her into a squalid tent city. Daphne, twisting her hands as she recounted her time there, said the woman used to beat her with a rough leather belt. Just when things were truly desperate, a group of concerned Americans came to the rescue. The Americans helped the Haitian group rent a nice house, hire cooks and teachers, secure a generator and stock treated water, provisions and toys.

The Rev Gerald Bataille, the children's full-time guardian since January, organised a makeshift school and a household staff.

Once the group had settled in, Pastor Bataille sought to have Daphne, who looked increasingly thin and hollow-eyed, returned to Frades. But the woman refused. So he searched for and located Daphne's mother's brother, an actual relative who was shattered by his sister's death.

"The uncle gave Daphne back to us until she reaches the age of maturity," the pastor said. Daphne still has recurring nightmares. But she is devoted to her studies — an evaluation found her at a fourth-grade level — and she is loving to and loved by the other children. "They are like my brothers and sisters," said Daphne.

Fabienne Jean

Fabienne Jean, the dancer who lost a leg in the earthquake, smiled so radiantly and expressed such courage that everybody who met or read about her wanted to help. Doctors, prosthetists, choreographers, dancers with disabilities, charitable groups - they all aspired to adopt her.

By early spring, Jean was struggling with conflicting offers: to be fitted for a prosthetic limb by a non-profit group in Haiti or to fly to New York for corrective surgery, rehabilitation and a stay of months in the city. After a period of agonising indecision, Jean chose to stay in Haiti, where she felt at home.

Recently, standing proudly on two feet, Jean led the way into her family home. Her new limb, ending in a stockinged foot encased in a delicate slingback flat, peeked out from beneath the cuff. Using a cane, she gracefully, but with a slight limp, navigated the house's challenging terrain.

Several times a week Jean does plis and arabesques as part of an exercise routine overseen by a high school senior trained as a physical therapy assistant. The Nebco Foundation, which built and fitted her limb, will be fine-tuning the socket next month and testing out feet that will allow her to dance again.

Jean looks forward to that, she said, but she added: "Realistically, there is no way I'll be a professional performer again. So I will need another way to make a living."

Jean said that she did not want to be a drain on her family, which had expected her to support them. Her father was scared that she would end up "in a corner, like a handicapped person". But that, she said, is not going to happen.

Alain Villard

A few days after the earthquake, Alain Villard surveyed the tree-shaded property in Ptionville where his boutique hotel, Villa Thrse, lay in ruins. Ten had died there, including four Haitian children and the foreign parents who were adopting them. Several bodies lay bundled in cloth, swarming with flies.

Down in Carrefour, Villard's large garment factory, Palm Apparel, had been flattened, and the death toll appeared to be in the hundreds. A worker's putrefying corpse dangled out the window from which she had tried to leap to safety.

At the time, talking 20 feet from the wrapped corpses, Villard, 42, had mused wistfully about how Haiti's depressed economy had been poised for revitalisation. Surely, he said, there must be a way to recapture that momentum.

With most of Haiti paralysed by the disaster, Villard rushed single-mindedly forward. Within a month, he had cleared the debris and human remains from his factory.

It turned out that far fewer workers had been killed than originally estimated, and 67 were mourned at the service, at the end of which Villard announced the factory's reopening at 6.30 am the following Monday.

He expects to open a new, more earthquake-proof factory on 12 January, and to break ground for the hotel's reconstruction, too. Although it disappeared almost a year ago, Villa Thrse is still ranked second of 25 hotels in Port-au-Prince on the Tripadvisor website - a sad commentary on Haiti's tourism industry.

But, Villard said: "You have to keep the faith. Under no circumstances would I have packed my bags and left Haiti".

Voices in the ruins

Photographs: Damon Winter/NYT

Deborah Sontag


THEY CALL it "goudou-goudou", for the terrible sound of the ground shaking. And 12 months on from one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in modern history, Haiti's population, which lost 200,000 people that terrible day, are still struggling.

More than a million displaced people still live under tents and tarpaulins. Reconstruction, of the build-back-better kind envisioned last March, has barely begun. Officials' sole point of pride six months after the earthquake — that disease and violence had been averted — vanished with the outbreak of cholera and political unrest over a disputed presidential election.

Yet despite this gloomy backdrop, many Haitians have started to find some equilibrium - to heal, to rebuild or simply to readjust their sights.

Here, haunting and hopeful, are some of their stories.