Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Getting priorities right

The camp opposite the palace - Photo: H. Atkins
 “Girls as young as nine are selling their bodies in that camp”, said the young guy as he tried to sell us some Haitian paintings. His name was Patrick and we were standing outside the remains of the presidential palace in Port au Prince. The camp he referred to was right opposite the palace, in what had once been a park - the equivalent of a refugee camp outside Buckingham Palace.

The office building is to be demolished - Photo: H. Atkins
 A group of us, including the SOS Children’s Villages President, Helmut Kutin, had driven into Port au Prince to see the earthquake devastation for ourselves. In particular we wanted to visit the former SOS Children's Villages Haiti national office, which had been located in a beautiful old colonial-style house. The house, with its wrought-iron balconies and heavy wooden shutters is about 150 years old, and despite the severity of the quake, is still standing, alone in a little green oasis. The modern concrete extension at the back, however, collapsed completely.

Earlier this year the whole property, which in normal times might have been preserved for its historical value, was condemned by the authorities, to be demolished. Sad yes, but in the scheme of things in present-day Haiti, when over a million people live in camps and little girls sell their bodies, it was not something to lose sleep over.

Repairs will take years to complete - Photo: H. Atkins
Our journey took us past the ruined presidential palace where we met Patrick and his paintings. The cupolas on the palace roof had collapsed like a cardboard wedding cake, and like most of Port au Prince, repairs have not yet started, although the gardens appear well tended. Meanwhile the president apparently lives in a little house on the side.

Election posters are everywhere - Photo: H. Atkins
 In four weeks' time presidential elections will take place and 19 candidates aspire to the top job. Standing outside the ruins of the palace, opposite the displaced persons’ camp, I couldn’t help thinking that this was not a job for the faint-hearted. Let’s hope they pick the right person and that work can soon begin on Haiti’s reconstruction.

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