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One year later, trauma of Haitian earthquake lives on

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2011-01-10

A year after the earthquake, millions of Haitians are still living in makeshift settlement camps. In Port-au-Prince, bustle has returned to the streets, but reminders of the destruction are everywhere, most notably in the shell-shocked population.

As the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince approaches, the Haitian capital has improved, but not as much as residents might have hoped.

Huge makeshift settlement camps still dot the city. A year ago, the makeshift dwellings in the camps consisted of nothing but frail wooden posts draped with sheets, tablecloths - anything that could block out the sun and dust.

Protection from the elements has improved slightly. Today, roofs are made from thick canvasses supplied by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Despite these improvements, it is alarming that an estimated two million Haitians still live in these camps.

In the streets downtown, the silence that petrified me on my last visit a year ago has evolved into a bewildering din of people, goats, dogs, chickens, cyclists, cars and trucks. The result is a cacophony of shouts and barnyard braying overlaid with the rhythms of Haitian zouk (typical Haitian music).

On every corner, there seems to be an improvised flower shop. Yet stubborn traffic jams still renders the air unbreathable. Scars from the destruction have not been erased, but are simply masked by the bustle of daily life in the capital. Even the local newspaper is operating again amidst the ruins.

The 250,000 people killed in the quake have long been buried, and it is a new chapter now. But the fear lives on.

"In recent days, people have been saying they can feel shaking," David Charlier, a FRANCE 24 correspondent in Haiti, told me. “People are paranoid as the anniversary approaches. They stop you in the street and ask: “Did you feel anything?” But the shaking they feel is only in their heads.”

In this traumatised population, conversations about death are very off-handed. Hurgon Laënnec, a sociologist I met this afternoon, says he's often disturbed by them.

"Every week, I learn about acquaintances that died, often through conversations that are oddly blasé,” says Laënnec. “On Monday, I met a friend and asked about her sister. “Oh, she died,” she said. “It wasn’t the best death.” She spoke in a disaffected tone before moving on to another topic. For me, this lack of emotion, after one year, is not a good sign.”

Meanwhile, a burdensome atmosphere still blankets Port-au-Prince. As if the trauma from the earthquake were not enough, Haitians have been coping with a cholera epidemic for the last four months. Add to this the suspected fraud during the presidential elections of Nov. 28, and the palpable lack of confidence toward NGOs and the UN is perhaps understandable.

One year on, the energy in the capital may be frenetic, but earthquake survivors - whose resilience so impressed me a year ago - seem exhausted and defeated.

Date created : 2011-01-09