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Global Voices in Haiti: Arriving in Port-au-Prince

Global Voices has sent a two-person team to Port-au-Prince in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, to help support citizen media activity. Georgia Popplewell and Alice Backer are also contributing firsthand reporting to our coverage of recovery efforts. Find out more about their assignment here.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, 25 January, 2010

Only managed to sort out reliable Internet access yesterday evening, so lots to catch up on.

***

We arrived in Port-au-Prince on Saturday afternoon, after a long but uneventful drive from Santo Domingo. As we approached Jimani, on the Dominican border, we began seeing probable evidence of the situation on the other third of the island: makeshift roadside stalls selling gallon bottles of gasoline, heavy trucks carrying cargo, a motorcycle passenger with his leg bandaged to the thigh. The area near the border gate was swarming with vehicles and people, and we fully expected border formalities to take some time. But after a mysterious confab between our driver and the two associates who’d come along on the trip and a man in a purple cap, we drove through the border gates just like that, with nary a nod from the guards or a request to see a passport, through the few yards of tierra de nadie between the two borders, and into Haiti. Later I noticed that the man in the purple cap had joined us and was sitting in the tray of the pickup among our luggage — turns out he was our Haitian navigator.

***

It was some time before we saw any earthquake damage — the epicentre was south-west of the city of Port-au-Prince, and we were approaching from the east. Then, here and there, the odd ill-starred building with a collapsed balcony; clusters of makeshift tents in parking lots and clearings. Then both sights became became more frequent: residences with collapsed upper storeys, framed pictures still hanging off the walls, crushed sofas. The clusters turned into tent cities. But still not anything like the images from the news.

***

I think that part of me has come to Haiti wanting to believe that the images I’d been seeing in the media were somehow exaggerated. In largely middle-class Delmas, where our journey from Santo Domingo ends on Saturday, a number of commercial buildings and residences along the Route de Delmas have collapsed, either entirely or partially, and walls everywhere show cracks and fissures. From one building, a large pane of glass leans precariously out over the sidewalk, and a pale yellow three-story residence has caved in on itself like a fallen cake, the ground floor flattened beneath the weight of the floors above. The arbitrariness of the damage was striking — why this building and not that one? The Canadian Embassy is perfectly intact, and a reporter is recording a stand-up on one of the parapets above the road. Businesses, including gas stations, are operating. People carrying five-gallon water bottles are lined up in orderly fashion in front of a water distribution shop. Traffic is flowing, and in spite of the damage it appears that things have returned almost to normal in Delmas.

Delmas water line

Queueing for water in Delmas

The offices of the National Democratic Institute, which the Internews team has commandeered for its use while in Haiti, are buzzing with activity. A young Haitian hanging out in front of the building helps us take our luggage up the stairs. “Ça va [How’s it going]?” he says. “Ça va bien,” I reply. The stock response, but it displeases him. “Ca va *pas* bien [It's *not* going well]”, he says. “J’ai perdu ma maison, mon beau-frère. Je suis sans-abri [I’ve lost my house, my brother-in-law is dead. I’m homeless].”

We’ve arrived just at the moment when the Internews team is rushing to get their daily information programme on air, so nobody pays us much heed. The place is crammed with suitcases, air mattresses, cases of water, laptops, emergency radios. Towels are slung over chair backs, and one shelf of a stationery cupboard is loaded with canned food. It doesn't look like there'll be room for us. We issue tweets saying we're looking for accommodation and Alice gets on the phone and starts working her family contacts. Within 45 minutes Alice’s friends L and B have arrived to collect us, and we head back out on to the Route de Delmas, now in darkness except for the headlights of cars and the fires and flambeaux on street vendors’ stalls.

On our way up to L and B’s house in Laboule we pass through well-heeled Pétionville, which is reported to have been largely unaffected by the quake. Two of its gracious squares, Place Boyer and Place St. Pierre, have nevertheless been transformed into teeming tent cities, filled with the newly homeless from other parts of this divided city. The luckier people are settling down for the night under the canopies of camionettes parked at the side of the road. In spite of the people milling around in the darkness, it is quiet. Parked across from the Hotel Kinam on Place St. Pierre is a MINUSTAH truck.

Tent city at Place St. Pierre, Pétionville

Tent city at Place St. Pierre, Pétionville

It’s odd to wake up the next morning in Laboule and look out upon a stunning mountain view. None of the houses in the area appears to have sustained much damage, though L and B have lost a retaining wall. The absence of running water and electricity probably have less to do with the earthquake than the fact that we’re in Haiti. At L and B’s house there are a few hairline cracks in the mortar that L, an engineer, has marked with black crayon, so he’ll know if they widen. L takes what he calls a scientific approach to the quake. He explains the math behind the Richter Scale and has decided it’s not worth worrying about aftershocks. In fact, L sleeps through the aftershock that occurs on Sunday afternoon.

The radio reports on Sunday indicate that people continue to be evacuated from the city. Over lunch, L tells us that some “méchants” (troublemakers) are spreading rumours that people who opt for evacuation won’t be allowed to return to the capital for five years. We also talk about L’s sister, a physician who has come from the States to volunteer her services and is now working in a centre at Croix des Bouquets. L’s sister reports that Haitian doctors are being sidelined in the relief efforts, and it’s only after she gives an interview to CNN that she starts getting some grudging respect from the big international agencies.

***

We finally leave Laboule late on Sunday afternoon and descend into Port-au-Prince. There are fallen buildings all along the Route de Bourdon and a slum that stretches like a skin over the hillside in the distance looks chipped and battered. It gets worse as we get nearer to the city centre, but it's still not the total wreckage from the photos.

We arrive at the Champs de Mars, the massive square in the centre of town that's been partly overtaken by a multi-section tent city. The sinking feeling sets in officially as we stop in front of the National Palace with its caved-in roof. That one certainly matches the news photos, except that up close it’s more massive, and more desolate. We drive around the Champs de Mars and pass in front of the Plaza Hotel, where a news cameraman is filming what looks like a heap of black rags in the street. The rags are in fact two dead bodies, perhaps recently pulled from the wreckage, their limbs intertwined.

The area just east of the Champs de Mars is straight out of the news photos. A long corridor of rubble, not a building left standing. You’ve all seen it by now, so I don’t need to describe it further, or the scent of decay that hangs in the air, now several times less intense than it was a few days ago.

I'm adding these last few lines just so I can say I didn't end on a note of despair. I apologise for adding to the heavy burden of bad news already borne by this country. And now to make a plan for what we'll be doing while we're here.

Originally posted at Caribbean Free Radio.

Global Voices’ work in Haiti is supported by our general support donors and by a humanitarian information grant from Internews. Please visit the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake page for more coverage.

4 comments

  • Great write-up, Georgia. I came in on Tuesday (from the DR as well) and have had similar experiences. Driving by Place Boyer every morning is a stark reminder that despite the fact that many in Petionville didn’t suffer the same devastation, the earthquake is everywhere. A tour through downtown and conversations with colleagues quickly reveals the scale of devastation – everyone either lost their home or knows friends, family, etc. that have. The same goes for their jobs. It’s incredible …

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