Fleeing the capital

Thousands stream out of Port-au-Prince, but the hope of rebuilding remains

Fleeing the capitalThe broken blocks of concrete that fell from his house during the earthquake killed Vladimir Desir’s wife and child, and split open the top of his head. Bleeding badly, he tried to find medical help in Port-au-Prince. There wasn’t any. Desir gambled that he’d have a better chance of receiving care in Jacmel, a city 60 km to the southwest. It took him 12 hours to get there. When a Maclean’s reporter spoke to him a week later, he lay on a cot in the yard of Saint Michel’s Hospital and was enthusiastically praising the work of Canadian military doctors who treated him. He doesn’t regret leaving.

Desir’s case is unique only because of how quickly he decided to get out of the capital. Tens of thousands of other Haitians are now making the same choice. Many have family in countryside towns and villages. Those who can afford it buy space on private buses that are brightly painted with images of leopards, pop icons, and all manners of slogans: Thank you Jesus; In God we trust; Jerusalem; Big Family; Baby I love you. Ticket prices have almost doubled since the quake. The owner of one bus blamed the price of gas.

Vaneau Jusil lives outside the capital but returned to it to bring out his mother, Tamanie Jean, 58. When Jusil located her amid the rubble, she wouldn’t leave. Many members of her family had been killed, and she refused to abandon their orphaned children. “I’ve been living on the streets for a week. I want to go, but I couldn’t leave with my son. I had other people with me,” Jean told Maclean’s. She pointed to half a dozen nieces and nephews crowded around her, explaining who had lost mothers and fathers. Her son only had money to pay bus fares for the two of them. When Jean wouldn’t leave Port-au-Prince, Jusil stayed, sleeping on the streets with the rest of his growing family.

They finally got a chance to leave last week. The Haitian government began supplying free buses to evacuate those who wished to leave the capital but couldn’t afford to pay for transportation.

There are other options. Thousands of Haitians with connections to foreign countries flock to those embassies. They are joined by those with no ties abroad. “I’ve never been to the United States,” Cadet Ligner, 39, said as he lined up to get a Haitian passport—the first piece of paperwork necessary to travel outside the country. “I have no idea if they’ll let me go, but I hope they take pity on me. I believe I can have a better life there.”

An official at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince said most of the straightforward cases involving Canadian citizens in Haiti have already been dealt with and that embassy staff are now working on more “complicated” ones. This takes time, he said, and as a result Canadian planes often leave Port-au-Prince to return to Canada with empty seats. But when Maclean’s visited the embassy last Saturday morning, several of the Haitians lined up outside carried up-to-date Canadian passports.

Other Haitians try to get to the Dominican Republic. Hospitals there are providing wounded Haitians with medical care. Some Dominicans complain that healthy Haitians are trying to slip in as well. “I can’t count how many have come through. Some are sick and some are not,” said Luna Mendez, a volunteer at a hospital on the border.

Haitian Johnny Jean-Louis, 31, was at that hospital as well. He had already looked everywhere in Port-au-Prince for his mother, father, aunt, and cousin. “I never found their bodies,” he said. “I thought they might be here.” Jean-Louis claims Dominican police beat and robbed him when he crossed the border. Maclean’s gave him a ride back to Port-au-Prince.

Fleeing the capital
Haitians looking for a fresh start line up outside the Canadian Embassy

Haitians streaming out of their capital are leaving a city that is visibly improving, but still reeling from the disaster that flattened it. Water and food distribution is more frequent, field hospitals are finally being established, and military and police patrols are increasing. But most Haitians are still afraid to be on the streets at night, although this is where almost everybody sleeps. They don’t have homes. The rainy season is approaching.

In the ruined downtown core last weekend, a shotgun boomed. A crowd of young Haitian men scattered, briefly. “There’s a warehouse down there. They’re after refrigerators, air conditioners, whatever they can sell,” the Haitian police officer who fired the warning shot said. One of the supposed looters had a different story. “Fridges? We don’t need that s–t. We need food,” Reggie Amilcar said when told of the police officer’s accusations. “They got food in there. They need to open the stores up and let us take the food to our people.”

But Haiti’s problems are deeper than hunger. Countless children have been orphaned and traumatized. Most jobs in Haiti involve physical labour, which means amputees—and there are many—will struggle to work. Schools, hospitals, and roads have all been destroyed.

Earlier this week, Canada hosted an international conference on helping Haiti. “We must, here and now, speak of the next stage, the stage of reconstruction,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said at the conference. There is some reason to believe that nation-building in Haiti can succeed. Unlike in Afghanistan, for example, Western governments can spend money on development there without provoking controversy at home. Also unlike Afghanistan, or Iraq, there is no insurgency to deal with, no war, no opposition to international intervention. Haitians want help. They are desperate for it. And, for the moment at least, there is a widespread global desire to help. It will have to last. The challenges in Haiti are staggering. Even before the earthquake, Haiti suffered from ineffective government, poverty, and the mass emigration of the country’s most skilled and educated citizens. Any meaningful reconstruction will take decades.

In the meantime, some of the first aid workers into the country are rotating out. Toronto environmental engineer Szczepan Kepka arrived in Haiti, three days after the earthquake, with Global Medic, a Canadian group that focuses on providing water and medical assistance in disaster zones. Kepka organized a team of Haitian teenagers and young men who fanned out across the city on motorcycles every morning to deliver and run water filtration systems.

They gave him a card on his last day. It’s difficult to imagine where they found it. His colleagues say Kepka cried. He denies it. The next morning the Haitian motorcyclists insisted on escorting Kepka’s jeep as it drove out of their neighbourhood. They rode in front of and behind it, sounding their horns as if they were protecting a visiting dignitary.

Haitian Wilnic Augustin hopes his children will leave Haiti too. He lost his house during the quake and now lives in his car. He has a few T-shirts. He changes these regularly and applies perfume to mask the smell of sweat that clings to him. Wilnic keeps photographs of his three children in his wallet. He wants to put them up for adoption in Canada. “I want my children to have a better life,” he said. “Mine is over.”