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Haitians mark a ‘very, very difficult year’

January 12, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE

From the streets of Port-au-Prince to the hills of northern Haiti, Haitians today are commemorating the anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that killed some 250,000 persons, devastated major cities and fueled Haiti’s uncertain political future.

Formal and informal commemorations were planned throughout the country, capping what Louis Dorvilier, the Haiti representative of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, called "a very, very difficult year."

Like other Haitians, Dorvilier has been frustrated by the slow pace of overall reconstruction work and by often overlapping and uncoordinated humanitarian efforts. And as a member of the Haitian diaspora, Dorvilier returned to Haiti only three months ago, having served as a representative in West Africa of the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Dorvilier said he was stunned when he realized the full extent of the quake’s effect on Haiti.

“I thought the entire country was lost,” he said in an interview on Jan. 11, recalling the events of a year ago.

But Dorvilier said he remains hopeful that if Haitians are given the opportunity to drive and lead rebuilding and reconstruction efforts, a new country can emerge. He said the efforts of non-governmental organizations — humanitarian groups — can only “fill in gaps.”

He also believes that Haiti must look toward building wealth and developing a middle class. “I don’t think the Salvation Army, or the Lutherans or the Methodists can do that by themselves,” he said of ongoing development efforts in Haiti.

Those who have lived in or have visited Port-au-Prince throughout the last year have noted that there are some discernable improvements in the Haitian capital, particularly in the removal of rubble and in fledging reconstruction efforts.

“I can see a lot of improvements in the city,” Henrik Stubkjaer, the general secretary of the Danish humanitarian agency Dan Church Aid, said in an interview with ENInews in Port-au-Prince. At the same time, the DCA official, whose agency is a member of the Geneva-based ACT Alliance and who visited Port-au-Prince in June, said his overall impressions are “very mixed.”

While some of the so-called tent cities — places where the displaced have been living since January 2010 — are better organized, Stubkjaer said he could “feel the level of frustration in the camps is increasing” among camp residents.

“They’ve stayed in the camps for a year now and they’re fed up,” he said.

Many of the tent cities remain crowded, congested, and often dangerous places, particularly for women and children. But even in camps which are not as crowded, residents say they are frustrated by the lack of jobs and uncertainty about the future.

“I think it’s going to be forever,” Calvin Bourre, 24, a construction worker and resident of the Corail camp, north of Port-au-Prince, said about life in the displacement site. The Corail camp has more space than the tent cities in the capital, and also has so-called “transitional” wooden homes that Bourre said are an improvement over tents in the crowded tent cities.

But there are still problems: the camp is far from the city center and far from a hospital and from jobs. “My first prayer in the morning is: ‘Don't get sick.’ We’re so far from the city,” Bourre said.

Some Port-au-Prince residents — their homes destroyed and livelihoods ended — left the city, frustrated by the conditions and difficulties of living in the capital after the earthquake. Some who now live in a peasant farmers’ cooperative in northern Haiti say they have no intention of returning to the capital and its attendant difficulties and frustrations.

“We should forget about Port-au-Prince,” said Ophliase Joseph, 55, the mother of seven children who now lives in the cooperative, located in Mayombe, Artibonite. “We’re staying here.”

Also frustrating in the last year: a cholera epidemic which has claimed more than 3,600 lives, and political uncertainty following disputed national elections in November.

While worries about post-election violence and uncertainty over a future runoff election remain palpable in Port-au-Prince, this week appears to be a quiet time when Haitians are remembering those who perished.

Shortly after the earthquake, the Lutheran World Federation headquarters, located in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville, became an encampment for visiting humanitarian workers of the Geneva-based ACT Alliance, an alliance of 105 churches and church-related organizations — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — that work together in humanitarian assistance and development.

Today, the tents are gone, as are most of the visitors. But on Tuesday (Jan. 11), LWF and ACT Alliance-member staffers paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the earthquake. The Rev. Joël Méhu evoked the story of Job and the Biblical figure’s faith in God despite hardship and calamity.

The tone was somber.

“It’s still difficult. There have been changes in Port-au-Prince, some of them good,” the Rev. Paula Stecker, of LWF, said of reconstruction efforts in the last year. “But today is still a difficult moment.”

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for ENI, is on assignment in Haiti for the humanitarian organization Church World Service.

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