“When we saw she was living, we all felt tremendous emotion”

A small triumph in the devastated Haitian city of Jacmel
(AP Photo/MINUSTAH, Logan Abassi)

The Haitian city of Jacmel, where much of the Canadian Forces’ relief efforts will be focused, has been as hard hit by last week’s earthquake as some of the most devastated neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince.

The city of 40,000 is connected to the capital by mountain roads that have been made all but impassible by crevices and enormous chalky boulders that sheared off from cliffs during the earthquake. A Maclean’s reporter abandoned the car he hired when it was unable to continue and reached the city by flagging down a passing motorcycle. Subsistence farmers living in these hills complain that no aid has reached them.

“Nobody has come. We need food, medication, tents. The rain falls here every night and the children are sick and suffering,” Filamis Jimmy, a 34-year-old man, says. He and his family of six children are living under sheets beside the road, eating patties made of flour and water and fried in oil. Military engineers plus soldiers from 3rd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment are deploying in the nearby town of Léogâne. They may soon push into the mountains where Jimmy and other rural victims of the earthquake live.

Jacmel itself is rubble and twisted metal. The city’s colonial-era architecture is cracked and toppling. Thousands of residents live in an enormous makeshift camp in a soccer field in the centre of the city. There is an open pit at one end that is used as a latrine. Huge vats of rice and beans supplied by the World Food Programme were cooking over open fires in the camp Wednesday, though some residents say they have had little to eat and those who hand out food in the camp give it to their friends and family. They say police beat people who swarm food trucks during aid deliveries.

The Canadian Forces are now in Jacmel in sizeable numbers. HMCS Halifax is floating offshore with 220 sailors on board. A medical unit from the Canadian Disaster Assistance Response team is also here.

The Halifax was diverted to Haiti immediately after the quake and arrived without stockpiles of emergency aid but made several deliveries of food and water. “We were able to spare what we could,” Lt.-Cmdr. John Wilson says.

Sailors from the ship have planned a latrine for the soccer field camp and have cleared rubble from the grounds of St. Michel’s Hospital, which was severely damaged during the quake. Dozens of earthquake victims are on the hospital grounds now. Some are in field hospital tents, erected where work crews from the Halifax hauled away debris. Other lie under scraps of cloth. All are at least off the ground, on cots or benches that have been pushed together.

DART’s medical contingent is at the hospital, working with Haitian doctors and nurses, and with some American civilian doctors who showed up and offered to help. Many of the injured suffer from fractures and open wounds. “We’re starting to do major surgeries,” Maj. Annie Bouchard, DART’s medical platoon commander, says. These include amputations.

“Some of the Haitian doctors are jealous because the Canadian doctors are giving such good aid,” one patient says. “The Canadians will do whatever it takes to help us. I’ve seen with my own eyes the Canadians and the other foreigners come with everything. If it were up to me, the Canadians could stay here all the time.”

Nearby, lies a 26-day-old baby girl, Elizabeth Joussaint, who has spent almost one third of her life under a pile of broken concrete.

“Me, all the family, we were sure she had died,” her grandfather, Michel Joussaint, says. The house Elizabeth was sleeping in collapsed during the earthquake. Her family hoped to recover her body and explained where she lay to a Colombian rescue team, whose members flagged an approximate location in the rubble where she might be found. A team of French firefighters arrived and started to dig. This was on Tuesday, eight days after the quake.

“We thought we were going to find a body,” one of the firefighters, Pascal Buisson, says. “When we saw she was living, we all felt tremendous emotion.” He slaps his chest. “We felt it here.”

The French firefighters handed Elizabeth to Haitian firefighters to take her to get medical help. She was brought to St. Michel’s. The French team came to see her the next day. She was sleeping, an intravenous drip in her arm, frail but breathing steadily.