Haiti one year on: “living in a tent is not really a life”

Survivors of the Haiti earthquake honor those they lost, Andres Schipani reports from Port-au-Prince for the Guardian.

 The angelical voices of a choir dressed in pristine white singing hallelujahs do not match the hellish scenery that surrounds them: piles of debris, an acid stingy smell of rotten rubbish, women crying while waving their hands at the skeleton of what used to be the country’s main Catholic church, Cathédrale Notre Dame de L’Assomption, thanking God for still being alive, but some also blaming him for plunging the Caribbean country into an abyss.

Exactly a year ago the earth grumbled violently, killing 230,000 people and flattening the cities along the centre of an impoverished country that is now no more than a mass of rubble and twisted iron. Today, broken Haitians are commemorating their losses following their hearts and their faiths.

Twenty-year old Samantha Bien-Aimé used to live right behind the cathedral. Now she lives under a grey nylon by the church’s shattered doorsteps. “I lost my mother, my father and my three-year-old baby. I thank God for still being alive, for my other baby to still be alive. But sometimes I don’t know what to think of him. And the politicians he has sent us. There are no words to tell you the sufferance of this past year, having lost a family, a house, living in a tent is not really a life,” she says.

“I am hungry now, do you have any food by any chance,” she asks me, crying. I give her all I’m carrying, a handful of cereal bars.

From atop what is left of one of the towers of the cathedral, where two massive iron bells still hang by some inexplicable miracle, the view summarises almost perfectly the state of things: hundreds of people congregating to commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake with tents neatly set up by international organisations surrounded by their white 4×4. Under those tents, the church’s hierarchy, representatives of international aid agencies and NGOs, politicians and foreign journalists, seem to be praying in silence. Right at their backs, behind a fence and across the street is a reflection of the desperation: a ‘tent city’ where squatters have been living under tarpaulins for the past 12 months.

Not far, at the Champs de Mars, on one side of the wrecked presidential palace the evangelists are also praying and hosting a concert. Everyone applauds and yells “today is a day of hope, hallelujah!” The streets of the city are flooded with religious music, chants and most of all, hope.

Right across the street from the palace, by her tent, Ronite Sant-Louis, a devoted voodooist says her faith has been put to the test since last 12 January when she lost a six-year-old son under the rubble of her now vanished home. “Several times this year I felt like God has abandoned us, I even tried to cancel him from my life in January. But now I want to keep believing my son will be back soon.”

For the voodoo, souls of the dead reincarnate in a new body, getting a new life without recollection of the past after it has been washed and scrubbed at sea by angels for 365 days. Of the people who died tragically during the earthquake, 100,000 are believed to have been voodoo followers. According to voodooists, today those souls would be ready to step back on Haitian soil, “like snakes that shed their skins”.

“I can understand people having doubts, but they have to understand earthquakes and pandemics can kill a body, but they will never kill a soul; never. And we will see that on a massive scale,” explains Max Beauvoir, the head of the Haitian voodoo, who is calmly playing a drum trying to keep his followers together. For him it is not their choice if they want to return to a shattered country or not: “Oh, they will be back. It is God’s decision. A God that knows that now, more than ever, we need Haitians to run this country.”

Back by the cathedral, a blinded sixty-three years old named Olens Calixte is playing the guitar, trying to spread some hope, “today was the day a year ago, today was the day.” Right in front of him two young girls are wearing t-shirts, emblazoning in the local Creole language what now seems like a national saying: “Nou toujou la” (“We are still alive”).

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/12/haiti-earthquake-voodoo-one-year-on

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