Latest update: 29/01/2010
The interminable wait at France's Lauriers manor
The French ambassador’s home in Port-au-Prince is the temporary base for consular services. Here, Haitian citizens with French papers form snaking queues in the hope of leaving. Our correspondent met them.
By Gaëlle LE ROUX , correspondent in Haiti (text)
Not much is left of the once luxurious Lauriers manor in Port-au-Prince, home to the French ambassador to Haiti. After the devastating earthquake struck, its lush gardens were transformed into a makeshift camp for French nationals waiting to be repatriated. Most of them have been shipped home, but some continue to wait.
The building’s tall gates, guarded by armed soldiers, keep out hundreds of Haitians who line up, hoping to be allowed into the embassy. They all share the same goal: return to France at any cost.
Among them is Bernarde Gerth, a 52-year-old woman, who is ready to spend another day along the gates of the manor, which run parallel to the busy road linking downtown Port-au-Prince and the neighbourhood of Petionville. She has already spent eight days enduring the persistent roar of motors and horns, breathing the diesel exhaust.
“I want to return to France to join my children. I work in the maintenance department of the Chatelet station of the Paris metro. I have my visa, I have my resident card, I have my plane tickets ... But I can’t get home!” she says in a surprisingly calm tone. Her four daughters are waiting for her in the town of Creteil, near Paris. The ticket in her hands is for a direct flight Port-au-Prince - Paris, dated January 15.
A legal “no man’s land”
A soldier walks along the queue, shouting “French Passports, over here!” Nobody moves. “It’s always the same!” exhales Bernarde. “We wait and wait, and only the French are called in. But there have been no French for the last week, only Haitians.” Bernard arrived in Port-au-Prince on the morning of December 29, for a long-awaited and hard-earned visit.
Unfortunately the story repeats itself along the line. Vladimir, 17, brandishes a long-stay visa and says he hopes to join his parents in France. Velon Bonhomme, 58, was supposed to return to France today. His wife, two children and three grandchildren stayed behind in Saint-Denis, a town north of Paris. He came to help finish building his brother’s new house in Peggyville, a town east of Port-au-Prince. On January 12, the house crushed his brother.
“These people are stuck in a legal no man’s land,” says Didier Le Bret, France’s ambassador in Haiti, who only started his job last October. “All our records were destroyed,” he explains “We do not know what their real situation is. Fake administrative documents are rampant in Haiti. I have a bin full of fake passports. They are very well copied in the Dominican Republic.”
For the French authorities, the repatriation of Haitians who are legal residents in France is not the first priority. They have taken a back seat to medical evacuations and the repatriation of Haitian orphans adopted in France. But the ambassador is confident nonetheless. “Everyone will eventually leave,” he assures. But the ambassador adds that this will require the reopening the consulate and getting records back in order. A slow process that Paris seems in no hurry to expedite.