Hope amid Haiti’s rubble

The Globe and Mail
February 2010

There is a lineup of tired people waiting to see Ronald Andris in the public library foyer and a list written in red ink on the wall to remind the deputy mayor of priority tasks: recover bodies, identify victims, inspect buildings, fix the electricity and co-ordinate the throng of aid organizations that have infiltrated his city.

Mr. Andris doesn’t need a list to remind him of Jacmel’s troubles, which reel through his mind all day, and in Technicolor while he tries to sleep at night. When he gets a few moments of time to himself, he prefers to think about the unseen good the earthquake has done to his seaside town.

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When the light begins to fade each night, thin silhouettes begin moving freely about a treed refuge tucked off the highway on the outskirts of town.

Whether or not there’s food to cook, somebody starts the fire with twigs harvested from the nearby wood; a few sprinkles of gasoline give the flames energy. In the darkness, it’s difficult to tell how many people are living in the handful of flimsy camping tents scattered among the trees.

It’s for exactly that reason that the HIV-positive young women who sleep here – orphaned teens who have been raped and burned and, in one case, blinded in one eye – wait until the sun slips away before they return: If the property owner who lent them space for their tents knew the true size of their group, they would be evicted.

Now, more than ever, they truly have no place else to go.

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Fake encampments spring up in Haiti

The Globe and Mail
May 2010

Scattered along the potholed dirt road that leads to some of the city’s nicest homes as well as to southern Haiti’s most posh hotel are the most stomach-wrenching sites in Jacmel.

A series of formerly empty lots have grown crowded in recent weeks with clusters of home-made teepees held up by anemic tree trunks, dried palm leaves, fraying tarps and bed sheets.

There is no order to these austere encampments, no signs any aid groups have visited, nor are there showers or latrines.

During the day, sparsely clothed men traipse around the sites with machetes, chopping once in a while at branches; women with babies sit together in the shade. At night though, residents can be hard to track down – peel back the sheets hung for doorways on the teepees and the tiny shelters are often empty.

That’s because nobody really lives in them.

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Lighting the way forward in Haiti

The Globe and Mail
August 2010

Wired to the trunk of a mango tree in a junkyard-turned-camp along Jacmel’s devastated Rue la Comédie is a shining example of Haitian ingenuity.

At eye level, a section of bark has been outfitted with a junction box and light switch, the flipping of which provides camp residents with a momentary reminder of what it feels like to live in a real house with amenities. It also opens up the stolen feed of electricity that powers the lone fluorescent bulb dangling from a wire woven among the mango leaves.

Hanging there on its own, that one light looks harmless – an understandable misdemeanour given the recent bad fortune here. Wrapped up in its symbolism, though, is this country’s greatest barrier to development: Haiti has a power problem.

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On the lip of this city’s worst slum, an unconventional factory is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

Beneath fluorescent lights and above blood-splattered floors, at least 50 wriggling infants are born each day at Isaie Jeanty, Port-au-Prince’s only maternity hospital, better known these days as “the baby factory.”

One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, the country has launched into a post-disaster baby boom. The birth rate has tripled in spite of the fact that the country is experiencing the most uncertainty its people have witnessed in decades.

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Amid Haiti’s ruins, a requiem for the lost

The Globe and Mail
January 2011

He arrived on a motorcycle carrying a potted desert rose, its young, slim trunk wrapped in a plastic bag. Head down, he moved quickly past the rows of unmarked black crosses, dropping to crouch before the concrete mound that serves as a tombstone for the unclaimed bodies buried in the mass grave beneath.

Sobner Bien-Amie then began to dig, his right hand shaking as he clawed past the gravel and into the red Haitian dirt. When he was satisfied with the depth, Mr. Bien-Amie reached for his tree, loosened its roots from the pot and replanted it, raking dirt back into the hole with his long fingers.

He was crying as he fumbled for a water bottle and poured its contents onto the tree, which the 39-year-old agriculture technician chose because it will survive parched conditions. He left it to memorialize his wife, Josie, who walked into the Hotel Montana one year ago and never, to his knowledge, came out.

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Newly married and pregnant with her first baby, Michaëlle Beaussicot has become one of the lucky ones.

She recently moved out of a notorious 55,000-person camp in Petionville and into a new, tin-roofed house atop a breezy plain northwest of town. The community is lit at night with solar lights, has women-only latrines, clean water, room for her tiny vegetable garden and school rooms for primary-aged kids.

“I’m lucky because a lot of people can’t get what they need,” she said.

That group includes Fabriola Valbrun, a 17-year-old orphan who prostitutes herself on the lawless streets surrounding Haiti’s crushed presidential palace. Her parents died one year ago today in the earthquake that smashed Haiti, leaving her with no one and nothing.

“If I had my parents, I wouldn’t have to go through this,” she said, breaking into embarrassed tears. “I have to live. I can’t die from hunger. Nobody cares about helping me.”

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