Archive for September, 2008

Meager Living of Haitians Is Wiped Out by Storms

Posted in Uncategorized on September 14, 2008 by haitiinthenews

 

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Many Haitians, used to poverty and suffering, have lost everything to four recent storms. The city of Gonaïves remained flooded. More Photos >

Published: September 10, 2008

GONAÏVES, Haiti — Their cupboards were virtually bare before the winds started whipping, the skies opened up and this seaside city filled like a caldron with thick, brown, smelly muck.

 

The New York Times

The city of Gonaïves, in a flood plain, is especially vulnerable. More Photos »

Suffering long ago became normal here, passed down through generations of children who learn that crying does no good.

But the enduring spirit of the people of Gonaïves is being tested by a string of recent tropical storms and hurricaneswhose names Haitians spit out like curses: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

After four fierce storms in less than a month, the little that many people had has turned to nothing at all. Their humble homes are under water, forcing them onto the roofs. Schools are canceled. Hunger is now intense. Difficult lives have become untenable ones and, if that was not enough, hurricane season has only just reached the traditional halfway mark.

One can see the misery in the eyes of Edith Pierre, who takes care of six children on her roof in the center of Gonaïves, a city of about 300,000 in Haiti’s north. She has strung a sheet up to shield them, somewhat, from the piercing sun. The few scraps of clothing she could salvage sit in heaps off to a side. “Now I have nothing,” she said before pausing a minute, staring down from the roof at the river of floodwater and then saying again in an even more forlorn way: “Nothing.”

At the home of Daniel Dupiton, who leads the local Red Cross, displaced relatives, friends and complete strangers have moved in, more than 100 in all, taking up every inch of floor space as well as the surrounding yard. “There are official shelters, and then there are unofficial ones, like my house,” he said.

More misery in Haiti is an almost unfathomable thing. Already the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere, it has become even more destitute. Haitians were struggling to feed themselves before the hurricanes battered their agricultural lands, killed their livestock and washed away their tiny stores of rice. Now, the country will be even more dependent on imports, and the high food prices across the globe will only increase the sting.

“Life was very, very difficult even before this,” said Raphael Chuinard, who is organizing the distribution of emergency aid in Gonaïves for the United Nations World Food Program. “The malnutrition rate was too high. People were resigned to suffer.”

And now that suffering has been turned up a notch. The hurricanes have struck all 10 of Haiti’s regions, and by knocking out bridges and washing away roads they have created isolated pockets of misery across the countryside. Relief workers and Haitian authorities have reported more than 300 deaths, most from Hanna, and they are just beginning to reach all the trouble spots.

In Gonaïves, still largely cut off from the rest of Haiti, sunny skies have helped bring the water levels down in recent days, but still residents move through the streets with their ankles, their knees and sometimes even their hips submerged in effluent. The hospital is covered with floodwater. So are thousands of homes.

At the main cathedral, the water rushed in the front door, toppling pews and leaving the place stained with mud and smelling of sewage. Upstairs, dozens of people have taken refuge, huddled together on the concrete floor. When a visitor arrived, they rubbed their bellies and pleaded for nourishment.

Getting food to the hungry is no easy task, dependent on planes, ships and helicopters — including a nearby United States Navy vessel — since trucks are getting stuck in the mud. Once food reaches a place like Gonaïves, the crush of desperate people turns handouts into melees. As a solution, food trucks, protected by heavily armed Argentine soldiers serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, have begun setting out before dawn to distribute high-energy biscuits while most of the city still sleeps.

Haitian politicians, known more for their infighting than for comforting the country’s poor, were busy squabbling when the storms were striking. The legislature voted out President René Préval’s last prime minister in April, after food riots broke out, and then rejected two subsequent nominees. That left the government, ineffectual at the best of times, adrift.

Taking over as prime minister in the midst of the recovery effort is Michèle Pierre-Louis, who tried to reach Gonaïves by motorcade in recent days but could not get through. She flew over the disaster zone on Tuesday, prompting grumbling on the ground in Gonaïves that she did not land.

The Navy vessel is now shuttling food and United Nations personnel between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves. As for the extent of the damage, Mr. Préval told The Miami Herald, “This is Katrina in the entire country, but without the means that Louisiana had.”

Gonaïves, the worst of the worst on the scale of the death and destruction, has always been especially vulnerable when hurricanes strike. A northern port city, it is located in a flood plain and fills up fast when rivers break their banks and rain rushes down mountains long ago stripped of trees. But that same geography gives the place agricultural potential, and much of the rice grown in the country is from the area around here.

It was just four years ago that Hurricane Jeanne hit Gonaïves, killing about 3,000 people and leveling much of the city. The ensuing years have been spent rebuilding.

This time, though, there is talk about whether it makes sense to try to recreate the same old place again. Authorities are talking about shifting some of the population away from the lowest-lying areas.

There is discussion of strengthening building codes so that structures are not so easily leveled in the next storm — and everyone knows there will be one. The local emergency operations center was flooded, and Yolène Surena, its coordinator, vowed that the new one would move to higher ground. “We should have done it before,” she acknowledged with a shake of her head.

In Port-au-Prince, Patrick Élie, a presidential adviser who is preparing a report on whether Haiti ought to reform its army, said the string of storms made it clearer than ever to him that the country’s biggest enemies were not other armies.

“We need a civil defense system,” he said. “These storms have pointed out the weakness of the Haitian state. Why are we surprised every time a storm hits when we know another one will come?”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/world/americas/11haiti.html

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Children in Servitude, the Poorest of Haiti’s Poor

Posted in Uncategorized on September 14, 2008 by haitiinthenews
Published: September 13, 2008

GONAÏVES, Haiti — Thousands of desperate women pushed and shoved to get at the relief food being handed out on the outskirts of this flooded city last week. Off to the side were the restaveks, the really desperate ones.

Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press

Women fought for rice on Thursday at a distribution center in Gonaïves, Haiti. Even more desperate are some child laborers who grab the meager grains that the women accidentally drop.

 

 

As woman after woman hauled off a sack of rice, a bag of beans and a can of cooking oil, the restaveks, a Creole term used to describe Haiti’s child laborers, dropped to their knees to pick up the bits that were inadvertently dropped in the dirt.

The hurricanes and tropical storms that have whipped across the western half of Hispaniola, the island divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the past month have laid bare the poverty and the deep divisions in Haitian society, where there are rich, poor and downright destitute.

Nobody illustrates that last group better than the restaveks, the thousands of young Haitian children handed over by their poor parents to better-off families, most of whom are struggling themselves.

The term restaveks literally means “stay with,” and that is what the children do with their hosts, working as domestic servants in exchange for a roof over their head, some leftover food and, supposedly, the ability to go to school.

In practice, though, the restaveks are easy prey for exploitation. Human rights advocates say they are beaten, sexually abused and frequently denied access to education, since many host families believe that schooling will only make them less obedient.

Unicef estimates that 300,000 Haitian children were affected by the recent storms, many of them forced to relocate to shelters or rooftops.

But young Haitians suffered significantly even before the skies darkened during Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, and more than 300 lives were lost. The country has the highest mortality rate for children younger than 5 in the Western Hemisphere, as well as a high death rate among infants and women giving birth. Just slightly over half of school-age children are actually enrolled in school. Attendance among restaveks, of course, is much less than that.

“Many of them are treated like animals,” said a United Nations official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have authority to speak on the delicate issue. “They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a little and they clean your house for nothing.”

Gonaïves, a city in Haiti’s northwest, was no boomtown when the storms hit, having been devastated by a hurricane in 2004, from which it was still recovering. But that did not stop many poor families from taking in restaveks, the offspring of the poorest of the poor.

“Almost everybody has one,” said one of the women jockeying in the relief food line.

They are children like Widna and Widnise, twin 12-year-old girls who have been in the same Gonaïves home for the past two years.

They get up at dawn to fetch water, collect wood, cook, mop and clean. They watch as their host family’s two children, who are about the same age, eat breakfast and then go off to school. The twins eat nothing in the morning and stay home working.

The twins have it better than most, they say. They are hit on their palms if they are disobedient but do not receive lashings on their head, as they say many of the restaveks in nearby homes receive.

In the evening, they eat with the two other children and sleep on mats on the floor, just as those children do. They had shoes, unlike many of their contemporaries, although they lost those in the flooding.

But the girls said they did not like their situation. There is the teasing they get from other children, who tell them over and over that they will never grow up, that they will always be servant girls.

And they miss their mother, who works in the countryside as a domestic servant and visits the girls when she can. She tells them that she will bring them home as soon as she can afford to feed them.

“Our mother is too poor to take care of us,” said Widna, the more talkative of the pair, adding emphatically, “We don’t want to be restaveks.”

What they wanted most immediately on Thursday afternoon was food. Their host family had fled its flood-damaged home, leaving the girls alone. They arrived at a school in the Praville neighborhood where United Nations relief food was being handed out but were told that only women were allowed in line.

The pint-size girls sat off to the side until they noticed that some rice and beans were being dropped amid all the confusion. The girls looked at each other and then sprang into action with some of the other restaveks, scooping up the specks of food from the ground one by one.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/world/americas/14haiti.html?_r=1&ref=world&oref=slogin