independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Haiti – A nation with a cross to bear

Reporter Jason O'Brien and photojournalist Mark Condren travelled to Port-au-Prince in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake on 12 January, 2010 – and stepped into a living nightmare. Now they've been back to see how things have changed.

Luckner Shackelton pictured at the Sacre Coeur Church in Turgeau during the Haiti days after the earthquake. Photo: Mark Condren

WITH people still trapped under rubble, bodies lining the streets and huge security concerns that saw armed American troops on the streets, the Haitian capital was truly devastated in what the United Nations described as the “most serious humanitarian crisis” in decades.

Life would obviously never be the same again.

Yet, for those lucky enough to survive, life had to go on – and the stoicism and determination of many in the face of that incredible adversity was widely noted and remarked upon as the world’s media shone its spotlight on Port-au-Prince for weeks.

But what happened when that spotlight inevitably moved elsewhere? 

A little over four years after the quake, our team has returned to produce a series of articles on whether life for the ordinary Haitian has improved on the back of the massive and initially-lauded humanitarian response.

Here, in the second report – further expanded on independent.ie – the award-winning pair track down some of those they interviewed and photographed in the chaotic days after the disaster that may have killed hundreds of thousands – and find out what happened next.

For many, the stoicism and determination to get back on track and back to some sort of ‘normality’ appears to have dwindled – or perhaps been ground down.

In its place? A grey and grim reality, and not a little bitterness at their lack of opportunity.

For others, however, that light has yet to be fully extinguished.

Luckner Shackelton (62), unemployed interpreter

‘JOE’ Shackelton, as Luckner is known, is a bear of a man, and someone we looked forward to meeting again because of his incredibly warm, gregarious manner and his perfect, almost poetic, English.

He worked as an interpreter, but had a nifty sideline in philosophy.

“People couldn’t find their loved ones, their family,” he explained one morning outside the fallen Sacre Coeur Church in Turgeau when asked about the mayhem in the city a few days earlier.

“They couldn’t phone them. So they went out looking for them. They could never find them in a city this big in the dark but they had to try. That’s what love is.”

He worked with us for a few days, and his demeanour and vitality were one of the few bright lights on a grim assignment.

Four years later, Joe is a changed man – something he immediately acknowledges himself. His booming laugh, which almost seemed inappropriate so shortly after the quake, makes no appearance during our conversation, which he will disappointingly cut short.

“I lost my job a couple of months after we spoke, and I haven’t had any work since. And without work, a man cannot get on in life, or have respect,” he says. “My family helps me to live – there is no other help (from outside).”

The 62-year-old fills his days looking after his only grandson, and seemingly ruminating on a fall-out with a co-worker that cost him his position.

 “He was a bad guy, he put the voodoo on me,” he says. “I lost the job. I’ve since heard that he has lost his so maybe now they (his employer) know that he was a bad guy.

“But I would never have told them – I don’t tell tales. I have my dignity. They can’t take that away from me,” he says firmly, before declining an offer of coffee, and leaving with a wan smile.

Whatever he believes, Joe still has both dignity and respect. The hope and warmth has left him, however.

Micaelle Bayard (47), shop owner

“I HEARD an aeroplane next door, and it took me a moment to ask, ‘why is there an aeroplane next door?’” Micaelle Bayard says, her eyes widening at the memory of the day of the quake.

“Then the noise got even louder and the walls began to shake, and I began to scream.”

Some of the walls of her small home – which also houses the family’s small shop – also began to fall, with one collapsing on her son Bernard, who was 11.

“I was okay – it hit me on the arm mostly but I jumped out of the way and ran outside,” he says.

Today, chickens and cats again roam the shop floor in Saint Marie as Mrs Bayard sits in a small chair, transferring rice from a big sack into small pouches that will be sold for 10 gourdes (about 20c).

“We re-opened timidly the following May,” she says.

When we had first met, all seven in the family were living in a small tent in a soccer field nearby – wary of moving back because of cracks in the remaining standing walls and regular aftershocks.

“We are still not back to the same size we were before. It is a money problem, and a money problem for the neighbourhood,” she says.

“We don’t have the money to re-invest. And we are not selling as much. Before maybe they bought four small sacks of rice. Now it is three.”

She says that while they got help and food from some aid agencies, including GOAL, the Haitian government has been conspicuous by its absence for the past four years.

“I believe in God and I believe things have to change,” she says of the future. “I’m an optimist. But I won’t rely on the government for my life.”

The small pouches of rice continue to pile up.

Sineus Dieunet (33), unemployed teacher

WE first met Sineus Dieunet seven days after the quake, and six days after he had dug his younger sister Nadia out of the rubble of the school she had been studying in.

“She was still alive but she could not talk at this point,” he says, his voice catching.

“We removed her. Ten minutes later she died.”

Nadia, like Sineus, had been working as a teacher, but she was also studying childcare in the hope of earning more money. Sineus estimates another 100 or so died with her when the three-storey school collapsed. He personally pulled out four bodies, but only one of the women lived. 

Like many other buildings in Port-au-Prince, poorly-built extra storeys had been added as the landlord sought to cash in on the mantra that ‘education is a way out of poverty’.

When we visited the site at Canape Vert a week after the quake, the bodies still entombed inside were decaying.

The nearby one-storey school that Sineus ran also collapsed, but fortunately it was empty.

Four years later, and he hasn’t been able to re-open.

“We worked under a tarp for a while but it was too hot,” he says now, playing with his son Drisch (2). “I was working more with younger kids and it was too difficult for them.”

Unable to find work for any meaningful period, he has struggled to put together the money needed to build a new school. His wife – another teacher – is working, but saving is a painfully slow process.

Yet, he remains determined.

“I don’t know how we will do it, but we will do it,” he says. “This is my goal, and my wife’s goal. This is where we are going.”

Augustin Yvon (35), street trader

BARBANCOURT Rum is one of Haiti’s best-known exports, but its price means it is out of reach for most locals.

Instead, they choose clairin, a strong spirit also made from cane sugar but not refined like higher-quality rum.

Augustin Yvon makes and sells it on the side of the street in Carrefour-Ville, charging five gourde (about 10c) for a cup. It burns about as much you would expect – a lot.

“It gives people a boost, and people need it,” the 35-year-old says.

His stall is outside the University Saint Gerard, and he has lived around here all of his life. When we photographed him in 2010, he was overseeing the removal of rubble at a house and a barber shop just across the street. 

“A lot of people died in there, but I don’t remember the names,” he says now.

“We just needed to get the place cleared up some, so we could back to work. We didn’t receive much help from anyone.”

Since the quake, his daughter Celeste (5) has moved in with him. She had previously been living with her mother in the mountains behind the capital.

“Fortunately, none of my family died that night, but I wanted to be closer to my daughter after that, and we have managed to do it,” the father-of-one says.

“I lost my house but got my little girl.” 

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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