Friday, 5 November 2010

Waiting for the hurricane

4 November; 14:00

Ever since I arrived in Haiti on 24 October I have woken early to clear, deep blue skies. The heat of the day has been intense and the humidity crushing. But today was different. The wind blew hard most of last night and when I woke at 06:00 it seemed dark and cooler, although light comes around 05:30.
Dark skies over Haiti - Photo: C. Martinelli
The lack of light was caused by ominous heavy clouds, which were low enough to cover the tops of the distant hills, and thick enough to envelop the intermittent jets taking off from the international airport. The reason for the wind is more technical and has something to do with Hurricane Tomas, which has been battering the Caribbean, either as a hurricane or tropical storm.
An Internet source shows Tomas’s current location 500 miles south west of Port au Prince, with wind speeds of 50 mph (just over 80 km/h), and projects it heading towards Cuba. Despite this the wind is getting stronger and the sky darker.

Boarding up the windows of classrooms to be used as dormitories in preparation for Hurricane Tomas - Photo: H.Atkins
Taking no chances, the government closed all schools until at least next Monday, so that children are not at risk. This has given SOS Children's Villages the chance to put five of their classrooms to another use. At the moment children and SOS aunties, 83 of them in all, are living in temporary shelters next to the children’s village. As these shelters are new, no one really knows whether they will withstand the force of a hurricane. So the school classrooms are being converted into temporary bedrooms where the shelter occupants will be safe. All the desks and chairs have been moved out and mattresses now occupy the floor. Windows have also been temporarily boarded up to counter the risk of flying glass.

Making space in the classrooms to create safe spaces for children and staff - Photo: H. Atkins
Elsewhere in the children’s village anything loose is being tied down or put away. The co-workers held an emergency meeting this morning at which they discussed all eventualities and each person has a role to play. The atmosphere is strange – busy, expectant, and calm all at once. Only the children continue to enjoy their unexpected holiday with the usual laughter, screams, tears and play that you find in every SOS Children’s Village. The adults watch and wait.

Preparing to cover and tie all loose items at the CV Santo in preparation for Hurricane Tomas - Photo: H.Atkins

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Haitians celebrate the Day of the Dead as Hurricane Tomas approaches

November 1 and 2 are public holidays in Haiti, to celebrate what is known as The Day of the Dead. In Europe many Catholic countries do a similar thing on 1 November, All Saints Day, when they go to mass to honour the saints and then to graveyards to pay respect to their dead family members. All Saints is also known as All Hallows, and so the eve is commonly referred to as Halloween. For Haitians the Day of the Dead has great significance and for two nights the celebrations have continued until deep into the darkness.

Haitians celebrated the Day of the Dead amid rumours of the approaching Hurricane Tomas - Photo: C. Martinelli
 But there’s another story that’s also concerning much of the population of this island – the approach of hurricane Tomas. We first heard about it last Friday and rumours had it that it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Whatever, tropical storm or hurricane, it is something that Haiti does not need right now.

Unhygienic living conditions will be made worse by heavy rains - Photo: Hilary Atkins

With 1.3 million people living in tents and a cholera epidemic that spreads through contaminated water, a hurricane is the last thing the Haitians want. The SOS Children’s Villages, both in Santo and Cap Haitian are solidly built and should protect both the children and their mothers; for those living in temporary accommodation, however, it could be a different story.

Makeshift shelters will offer little to no protection from the hurricane - Photo: Georg Willeit
 The last we heard of hurricane Tomas it was about 295 miles (almost 500 kilometres) south-southwest of Haiti, with 45 mph sustained winds. If it does hit Haiti it will be around Thursday or Friday, but projections show that it could miss the island altogether. Either way, relief agencies running displacement camps are making contingency plans and bracing themselves for the worst.

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.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Yesterday I met Marevie

Marevie is happy with her new family - Photo: Hilary Atkins 
 Yesterday I met Marevie. She is the little girl found by Louis Klamroth in February. She was about a year old, skeletal and hardly breathing and Louis saved her life. He not only took her to hospital but also, because she had no living parents, took responsibility for her until she was well enough to be taken into the SOS Children’s Village in Santo.

Marevie became a child of the village in May this year, once she was out of the danger zone. Nevertheless her hospital treatment was not over and Marevie has been in and out of a specialist hospital during the last five months. She is still thin and doesn’t yet look really healthy, but she has other things going for her.

For a start, Marevie is now surrounded by a very large family of 19 children, cared for by one SOS mother and two ‘aunties’ and even has a younger baby sister (the families are extra large due to earthquake fatalities). She is obviously very much loved by her older sisters and brothers who are carefully monitoring her progress. She can now walk and has said her first words.

When she was found by an SOS volunteer, she was little more than skin and bones - Photo: Georg Willeit
Even though Marevie was only a baby when the earthquake struck she has been severely traumatised, not just by the physical disturbance but by the fact that she nearly starved to death. According to Louis the starvation was deliberate, caused by her stepmother, her father’s second wife, who fed her own children at the expense of Marevie. She would almost certainly have died if Louis hadn’t spotted her emaciated body amongst so many other children at a community feeding centre.

I think it will be a while before Marevie recovers from her ordeal. One hopes she will forget it as she gets older, but who knows what emotional damage is done by such inhuman treatment? Only time will tell.