If I had to find an image that defines what I have seen today in Haiti, I would chose the smile of Sheila. Sheila is a young lady that was eating an orange in one of the run down streets of Leogane. When we passed by, she waived at us, then smiled and offered me a piece of her fruit. I, in exchange, shared with her my bottle of water. I think Sheila showed me with this gesture how the Haitian people are like. They lived through a terrible tragedy but came through with their dignity intact. And they, with our help, can build a new Haiti.
My experience from visiting different EU funded projects in Jacmel and Leogane sums up in a short sentence – both the good and the bad exceeded my expectations. People´s basic needs are now met. There is plenty of food, water, basic shelter and medical care. But jobs are few, and the road to recovery is long and hard. As we drove to the international airport of Port-au-Prince early in the morning on both sides of the road were spread demolished houses, improvised tent camps, streets full of rubble and debris. I could also see the intense activity of humanitarian organizations on the ground. In our way we crossed with caravans of Medecins Sans Frontiers, Save the Children, UN, Red Cross… I could also see that life did not stop in Haiti and that Haitians, and women in particular, were restarting their small businesses.
A United Nations helicopter has taken us to Jacmel, one of the cities most affected by the earthquake, with almost 80% of the buildings either demolished or otherwise damaged. From the air Jacmel looked like a bombed city. Even if some structures have survived the level of destruction there is appalling. Piles of rubble disturb the traffic, and most of the people live in tents or improvised shelters. Food and sanitation are serious problems. The bed of the river, for instance, is blocked with rubbish and this can create floods when heavy rains come.
In Jacmel I visited one of the distribution centers of the World Food Program where local communities cooked their own food. This sense of community, of social fabric, in which Haitians support each other, impressed me a lot. Life does indeed go on. One of the NGOs that the Commission supports is helping the local families to bring down unsafe buildings, remove the rubble and build in the sites temporary (but solid) shelter. While some of the young people removed the rubble, others played basketball – a sign of normality only a week old.
When we thought we can’t see anything worse than the destruction in Jacmel we flew over Leogane. The city has been completely flattened and patients in the clinic we support refuse to be treated inside because they still fear another quake. We had lunch with the Canadian battalion commanders (Canadian army food rations) and learned why the local people really didn´t want them to leave. The Canadians have done a wonderful job offering both military and civilian services and have visibly improved the lives of hundreds of people.
We saw injured people and babies having trouble getting to sleep. We talked to families who sat in front of their neat but fragile tents and told us they hope to return to their houses soon. And we made a list of projects that must be completed before the rains start. High on this list is cleaning the river bed in Jacmel, so Sheila´s tent doens´t get flooded. I owe her that much for the smile that lightened up our day.