Carnival returns to Port-au-Prince, but celebration is more subdued

Editor’s Note: CNS staff writer Dennis Sadowski and staff photographer Bob Roller arrived in Haiti yesterday afternoon to report on the aftereffects of the January 2010 earthquake.

People walk along a street in Port-au-Prince March 8. Much misery remains more than a year following Haiti's devastating earthquake. (CNS/Bob Roller)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival returned to the Haitian capital this week, but not with the usual sense of jubilance that marked the three-day affair prior to last year’s devastating earthquake.

Last night’s celebration featured a parade through the dusty, potholed streets of a neighborhood near downtown. Brass bands, vibrant dancers and street theater were all part of the festivities. Young people dressed in colorful — sometimes scanty — costumes and glitter faces. Others wore elaborately designed and decorated masks reflecting Haitian tradition. Clearly, most were made by the people who wore them.

The parade was also a chance for supporters of the two candidates in Haiti’s March 20 presidential election to show whom they backed. More than a few people were plastered with posters depicting popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and former first lady Merlande Manigat, who are in the runoff election after two months of controversy marred Haiti’s attempt at a smooth, democratic transition in power.

Overall, long-standing revelers said, the themes this year were more subdued. But CNS photographer Bob Roller, who roamed the crowds in search of just the right image, seemed to think participants and the throngs along the parade route were trying to get back to normal after a year of horrendous hardship.

This year’s Carnival went off amid a bit of controversy. It was organized despite the loss of long-time financial backers who felt the festive affair was not far enough removed from the quake 14 months ago which claimed more than 300,000 lives. About 800,000 people still live in spontaneous settlements in ragged tents and squalid conditions.

The Haitian traditions continued today, Ash Wednesday, as the Christian world embarks on the six-week Lenten journey. From now through Easter, “rara” bands will traverse neighborhoods singing songs about life and events of the past year. Traditionally, the songs recall some of the not-so-fortunate news of the community from which the band hails in a ritual meant to evoke remorse and regret.

USAID assessment finds vegetable seeds are plentiful in Haiti

Haitian farmers have plenty of seed for traditional crops and new types of seed should not be brought into the country unless thoroughly tested under local conditions, says a recent study by relief and development agencies funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Back in June, Haitian peasants threatened to burn any vegetable seeds showing up in seed stores that were donated by the Monsanto Co. Peasant leaders said the hybrid seed, not bred for local conditions, would upset agricultural environments and make farmers more dependent on unwanted seed varieties from outside of the country.

Monsanto defended its contribution, which included varieties of corn, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, melon, onion, spinach, tomato and watermelon, saying it came to help Haitian farmers who may have been unable to purchase seed because of shortages in the months after January’s devastating earthquake.

While the controversy has died down with no major altercations, a recently completed assessment of seed availability found that plenty of seed for traditional crops exists. The report recommended that seed from outside of the country not be introduced unless thorough testing is conducted and that local markets be allowed to function normally.

The assessment, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, involved 10 relief and development agencies, including Catholic Relief Services. The 124-page final report offered 44 recommendations to help Haitian farmers, including ways to invest in small farmer-driven variety, seed and agricultural marketing systems.

A key finding is that plenty of seed is available as farmers finish planting traditional crops such as corn, beans, squash and melons this month. The major challenge facing farmers, however, is household finances and the ability to afford the cost of seed.

The cash shortage among farmers is fueled by the relocation of people who fled earthquake-ravaged regions and moved in with family or friends in rural communities.

Any seed donations should be adapted to local conditions, fit farmer preferences and be “at least as good” as what farmers normally use, the report recommended.

The assessment also suggested that investing to assist women’s groups in agricultural enterprise efforts will help build the rural economy.

A USAID spokeswoman said the full report is expected to be posted soon.

Life in camps no better for Haitians than in days following earthquake

A husband and wife build a makeshift tent from sticks less than three weeks after Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake. Reports on the ground indicate that little has changed in the camps more than seven months since the disaster occurred. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Seven months after the Jan. 12 earthquake, a large part of Haiti continues to reel in the aftermath of the disaster. Haitians are praying and hoping that relief comes their way soon and that summer tropical storms bypass their country.

A brief description of life in the displaced persons camps arrived this week from Junior Sinsmyr, the young man whom CNS photographer Bob Roller and I hired as a driver and interpreter during our 10 days of reporting from the Port-au-Prince area following the quake.

Writing in an e-mail, Sinsmyr, who lost his home and continues to live in a tent community near the international airport, described the situation as confused, even worse than in the days following the earthquake.

“I already change three tents,” he wrote in English, his second language, “’cause rain and sun fall them apart, break them.

“Things are difficult here for those like me. The hunger is the first. Beside this, when the quake was just happened, it was so frustrated, but finding help easier than now. People do not care about others now,” he said.

Sinsmyr’s message was followed by one from Archbishop Bernardito Auza, papal nuncio to Haiti. He also wrote that life is hardly any better in the hundreds of tent camps that sprouted in the broad earthquake zone in the days after the disaster.

“It’s always emergency from the humanitarian perspective,” the archbishop said. “The camps are always the same as they were days after the earthquake. Some say that instead of diminishing, the camp populations have seen an increase, at least in some, attracted by aid distribution and possibility of cash-for-work, as well as the impossibility of finding better alternatives.”

Efforts by agencies such as Catholic Relief Services to provide transitional housing has helped some homeless Haitians, but the overwhelming majority of displaced people remain under improvised shelter, he said.

“It’s one solution to depopulate the camps and make sure the house is built on properties verified by owners,” Archbishop Auza continued. “There are some NGOs (nongovernment organizations) that prefer to build permanent housing. But we are light years away from fulfilling the demands.”

The archbishop said 250,000 homes are needed to house the 1.5 million people who remain in the camps. “We are still so far from that.”

Keep Haiti in the headlines, advocates urge

Some of the most vulnerable Haitians have been overlooked during the distribution of aid because they have not relocated to official camps in earthquake-stricken areas of the country. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Headlines in the media about the Haitian earthquake have fallen to a trickle now that the disaster is more than three months in the past. But that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten, advocates working on Haitian relief efforts believe.

Several concerns about the lack of involvement of Haitians in recovery efforts as well as the falloff in media coverage of the disaster were aired by representatives of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and the TransAfrica Forum during an April 28 program at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington.

The concerns have arisen as plans are being made for housing hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless by the Jan. 12 quake as well as for rebuilding the wide swath of the impoverished country that remains decimated, said Nora Rasman, a program associate at TransAfrica Forum.

Among the concerns Rasman cited: planning meetings being carried out by the United States and the United Nations that are conducted in English, with minutes kept in English. Haitians in attendance understand the English-only proceedings, Rasman said, but would better get a grasp on the discussions if they would be translated into Creole, the language of Haitians.

Shaina Aber, associate advocacy director at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, said her agency works to empower women to have an equal voice in the governance of the seven camps with an estimated 23,000 residents that the agency coordinates.

“We want to ensure that women have a voice in the camps, in security, in government, in planning for the future,” she told an audience of more than 100.

The distribution of food and shelter supplies only to people in “official” camps also was mentioned by both women. While there are several hundred camps where aid is distributed, there are thousands more unofficial ones on street corners and in neighborhoods where the most vulnerable –- the elderly, pregnant women and children -– remain and are bypassed by aid workers.

As for the media, Joia Jefferson Nuri, TransAfrica Forum’s chief of staff, suggested the Haitian story can pick up steam as long as American political leaders talk about it. She urged the audience to contact legislators to remind them to keep talking about Haiti to anyone and everyone.

Writing and calling media outlets will help, Nuri said, but unless people of more prominence keep the issue before the public, the Haitian earthquake story will fade further into history.

Determined Haitians stand strong in the face of insurmountable obstacles

Girls outside tents at a camp on the grounds of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – While leaving the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince this morning we passed by a U.N. World Food Program food distribution site. Dozens of earthquake victims were hurrying back to their tattered shelters a few blocks away, large sacks of rice in their possession.

The eagerness of the Haitians to return to their families with this gift of life was evident on their faces. No one looked happy — just very concerned that they get back to feed hungry stomachs.

The sacks, emblazoned with the USAID logo, are meant to last two weeks. After that, the World Food Program plan calls for continued distributions of food across 16 zones around the capital. How long the distributions will continue is anyone’s guess.

The realization that this could go on for a very long time is sobering. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless in the country, most around Port-au-Prince. An estimated 400,000 of the area’s 3 million people have fled to the countryside, placing greater burdens on an already-stressed rural community where the agricultural capacity has been limited by recent hurricanes.

A crucifix remains standing amid the rubble of Sacred Heart Church in Port-au-Prince. (CNS/Bob Roller)

And here we — Catholic News Service photographer Bob Roller and myself — were ending our assignment after 10 days on the ground in the earthquake-ravaged city. We had the opportunity to leave. But these Haitians cannot. They will continue to encounter challenges that most Americans would find unimaginable.

Yet they stand strong as in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They are not giving up. Their example is one for the world.

Now it remains for the world to respond.

Charlie Jacques prays the rosary for comfort outside destroyed Port-au-Prince cathedral

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Just about every morning since the Jan. 12 earthquake Charlie Jacques visits what’s left of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and prays the rosary.

“It gives me comfort and gets me through the day,” the 33-year-old Jacques told Catholic News Service today, unwrapping a bright green rosary from his right hand to shake hands with a visitor.

Remains of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption are seen the day after the Jan. 12 earthquake. (CNS/Caritas)

He sits quietly on a splintered plastic chair tucked into a corner between a brick wall and the wrought iron fence that surrounds the cathedral. His gaze appears distant, thinking about the better times of the past.

For Jacques, it’s been the same routine for more than three weeks since the home he shared with his sister on Dalmas 2 was destroyed in the quake.  He said he lost his job as a laborer at a food depot the night of the disaster.

This morning, Jacques appeared fatigued in his dusty clothes. But he’s holding out hope that someone will help. First he wants food. He said he has eaten little since the earthquake. Second, he’d like a job so he can help support his sister and begin to save money for another home.

He wraps the rosary around his right hand again and returns to prayer.

Persevering Haitian barber rebuilds his shop amid signs of clean up

Chov Jean Jacques takes a break while workers rebuild his barber shop in Sarthe. (CNS/Bob Roller)

SARTHE, Haiti — Signs of clean up and rebuilding slowly are becoming more evident across some of the most seriously damaged neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince.

Barber Chov Jean Jacques is just one example.

We came across Jacques sitting in what was left of his tiny shop on the main street into and out of Sarthe, just north of the Port-au-Prince airport. He was watching two workers — masons Roudy Pierrilus and Louis St. Ilus — rebuild the front wall of his business on the side of the road at the foot of a heavily-trafficked, creaky bridge.

He said he expected to be back in business in a week or so.

The cost to rebuild is about US $1,500, Jacques estimated.  He borrowed money to pay the workers, and the construction-supply business extended credit for the concrete blocks and cement. Once he reopens he expects to repay the loans in due time.

The construction style is typical of many of the thousands of structures that came tumbling down in the earthquake: concrete walls with simple rebar supports. If another quake hits, it will tumble down again.

But people such as Jacques deserve credit and support for the desire to persevere and continue living.

When the earth quaked, Jacques was in the middle of a haircut for a customer. Three customers were waiting their turn. All escaped unharmed but the front of the shop and most of one side wall caved in. And with it most of his furniture and equipment.

“We just can’t say anything. It’s God’s will,” he said of the Jan. 12 quake, which Haitians call “The Event.”

As for where he will get chairs for his waiting customers and a barber chair, he told me, “If you get some, send some.”