- AMERICAS NEWS
- JANUARY 22, 2010, 7:40 P.M. ET
A History of Troubles Is Helping Haitians to EndureBy IANTHE JEANNE DUGAN And MICHAEL DEIBERT
The Wall Street Journal
(Read the original article here)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—On a street corner amid a pile of rubble in Haiti's ravaged capital, life goes on. A man calmly polishes his shoes. Children run around dirty from the debris and half dressed but playing and laughing. A group of residents march by carrying mattresses on their heads, followed by another toting plywood.
As many as 200,000 people have died here, according to the government, and roughly one million have been made homeless. The roads from the capital are snarled with tens of thousands more fleeing the city. But many Haitians remain entrenched in the capital, and many are beginning to go about their daily routines, showing a resilience that some attribute to the nation's history of living from one disaster to the next.
"There are no other people besides Haitians who could come back this way," says Nadine Stremy, coming out of a supermarket carrying a bag of groceries. "They have learned through decades to survive."
A group of Haitians gathered around a car radio Wednesday night to listen to President René Préval's first speech since the earthquake that came eight days before. He said telephones were working again, the government is working, and called for courage and solidarity. "Solidarity!" someone shouted, smiling.
The next day, on Thursday, in the Canape Vert neighborhood, the local branch of Uni Bank opened its doors. Thousands of people waited outside, but the bank allowed only a few dozen business customers with whom it had relationships, according to an employee.
Nearby, at a Western Union, vast numbers waited in line to get in, many saying they were hoping for remittances from relatives in the United States.
"It's a terrible thing, but it is also life, so what else can I do but continue?" said Michelet Saint-Preux, who was on the third floor of the Université de Port-au-Prince when the four-story building collapsed, killing students, many of whom were attending after-work classes.
Mr. Saint-Preux's arm was bandaged and he had a deep gash in his chin. The structure still lay in ruins, with students' papers and notebooks scattered under concrete and jagged metal bars. The air reeked of the body that still lay pinned underneath a flattened Suzuki 4x4 jeep.
Near the collapsed palace, a group of men sat on the side of the road with an array of electric generators they were selling. Another man sold shoes and sneakers. In various spots around the city, hoses were set up with nonpotable water. Women with buckets washed their clothes on the side of the road, and children bathed. A ramshackle funeral parlor was open for business, and two hearses were being loaded.
Many Haitians say their resilience is rooted in Haiti's tortured history. Haiti overthrew French domination in 1804 to become the second independent republic in the Americas after the U.S. (Haiti's military victory inspired Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States). It later served as a base for South American leader Simón Bolívar, providing material and logistical support in the southern city of Jacmel for his campaign to liberate the Southern Hemisphere from Spanish rule.
But through the ensuing decades, they faced long periods of military juntas, dictatorship, and arbitrary justice. During the 29-year rule of the Duvalier family, Haitians quaked in fear at the bloody work of the dictatorship's paramilitary enforcers, the Tontons Macoutes.
During the more recent era of priest-turned-president Jean Bernard Aristide, the stuff of Haitian nightmares were the "chimere," named after a mythical fire-breathing dragon and comprising desperately poor, heavily armed gangs of young men who did Mr. Aristide's bidding.
"We have gotten through so much as a country," says Ms. Stremy. "This is why we consider each other brothers and sisters. We are survivors."
Just over a week after the quake, roadside markets where many people buy all their produce began to reappear for the first time. Along the capital's Avenue Pan American, an artist strung a fishing line between two trees and hung his wood carvings, against a backdrop of tumbled boulders. Near Champ de Mars square abutting Haiti's ruined National Palace, wood-carved furniture was being sold next to a dead body covered with a purple flowered sheet.
A pharmacy that had opened was mobbed—and robbed. So some stores opened for just a few hours and had security guards keep customers outside, letting just a few in at a time.
All over the city, signs have sprouted up in English, French and Creole. "Help us," says one. "We need food and water," reads another. Some carry phone numbers.
Michele Pierre-Louis, a former prime minister in the government of Haitian President Préval, said that despite incidents of violence, most people "peacefully pray, sing and help each other the best they can."
At a waterfront park on Wednesday, hundreds of Haitians lined up facing the water through a large iron gate. They were watching a Red Cross ship make its way to shore with supplies. On the other side facing them were military guards holding their rifles.
On the grounds of the capital's elite Petionville Club, several thousand Haitians waited patiently behind a rope barrier for food and water packets being distributed by the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. In the capital's Canape Vert plaza, members of the Haitian National Police supervised the distribution of food donated by private individuals in the Dominican Republic.
"We are waiting to get some food and water," says Lesly Jeudy, who says that almost every structure in his Christ Roi neighborhood has collapsed. "We haven't had any food or water for two days."