Six months after Haiti‘s earthquake, the smell of death has gone. For a while it was on every street corner, a powerful reminder of the estimated 222,570 Haitians who perished. The dozens of aftershocks have also slowly subsided over the months, in frequency and intensity. These days a kind of ordinary life is attempting to reassert itself alongside the ruins where people still dig for bodies or try to shift the mountains of debris. How many of the dead are still under the rubble is unclear. But even now the bodies, as dried out as mummies, are being extracted in ones and twos, attracting small crowds when they are found.
In Port-au-Prince women have returned to their old pitches to sell vegetables and jeans, chickens and car-phone chargers. Near the city centre, the yellow tiled floor of a demolished church has become a football pitch for the local boys. In the ruins of the capital’s Catholic cathedral services now take place in the grounds.
Most of the 13,000 US troops who were dispatched to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the disaster have gone, their mission ended on 1 June. The paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, who helped keep order and guard food distributions, have returned to North Carolina. The hospital ships that provided medical treatment to thousands have gone back to their home ports. A few hundred soldiers remain involved in reconstruction projects or with helping to keep the docks that are Haiti’s lifeline running.
The scores of aid agencies that were either based here before, or rushed to the scene of the catastrophe, are now in transition from emergency relief to more long-term projects supporting the population in everything from food to sanitation. There are big agencies like the UN and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as church groups and tiny one-man bands. Cubans, Venezuelans and Israelis. Volunteers from Boston, London and Sydney. In the immediate aftermath the ranks of the International Medical Corps (IMC) were swollen by hundreds of volunteer nurses and doctors from across America, who came to work two-week long shifts to help Haiti’s medical services cope with an estimated 300,000 injured. Now the IMC is scaling back its emergency effort to concentrate on the primary healthcare support it provided to Haiti’s clinics before the earthquake occurred.
The camps for the 1.5 million who were displaced from 200,000 homes damaged by the disaster, have also been transformed. For most the nightmare of sleeping on the street is over. The simple shelters made from branches and bed-sheets have developed over the months into structures of scavenged wood that have filled up with plastic chairs and mattresses. Roads, alleys, whole neighbourhoods have been created. The new shanties occupy public spaces such as the Champ de Mars park in the centre of Port-au-Prince, close to the badly damaged Presidential Palace. They crowd in around the Neg Mawon, Albert Mangones’s statue of the idealised slave-rebel of the liberation struggle. These new communities have proper latrines and market stalls at their fringes and, in the Champ de Mars, even a giant screen provided by the government on which to watch the World Cup. At night, under the lights, the residents listen to local music – racine and kompa – or American hip-hop, drink rum and play noisy games of dominoes. Some watch television inside their shelters.
My first visit to Port-au-Prince was a month after the earthquake, the first of three journeys made to follow the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of disaster. On 12 January this year, at seven minutes to five in the afternoon, a new reality was carved out in the Americas’ poorest nation. Even before the earthquake, three-quarters of this country lived on $2 a day or less. Unemployment and chronic underemployment stood at almost 70%. Haiti’s economy was already in reverse; its growth falling in real terms from 3.4% in 2007 to minus 0.5% in the year before the catastrophe. Haiti had no state-supported healthcare: no food security other than that provided by international aid agencies. If the country was at zero on 11 January, it is at less-than-zero now.
Not all of Haiti was affected by the earthquake, large areas were left untouched. But it struck in densely populated urban areas, in and around the capital which, with its large satellite suburbs, is home to almost 3 million of the country’s 9.8 million inhabitants. Even before the earthquake Port-au-Prince only had infrastructure to support 400,000. The citizens of this earthquake land continue to live with the consequences of disaster heaped upon disaster: houses destroyed or too dangerous to live in; rent inflation of up to 50% in available properties; sharp rises in food prices. Some had paid their rent a year in advance on 1 January. Their homes now destroyed, there is now no way of getting their money back. Their jobs and businesses have been destroyed. They have borrowed to survive from friends, from micro-credit companies and banks and from loan sharks, increasing already high levels of indebtedness.
On my first visit I go to the police station near the airport where the government has settled. Ministers sit at a long table on a raised dais participating in an apparently endless press conference shown on live television for the few who can watch it. As the months go on the government and the state, instead of being reimposed, retreats still further from the view of most Haitians. What ministries are accessible have nothing to say and precious little help or advice to offer.
By my third visit in June senior aid workers are complaining that there is still no plan for the country’s reconstruction. It is a complaint endorsed by the US senate, which last month received a scathing report written by the staff of Senator John Kerry on the rebuilding of the country, describing it as “stalled” by a lack of leadership, disagreements among donors and disorganisation. The government was bad before, one senior UN official tells me wearily – now it has all but disappeared.
But, faced with the challenges of rebuilding, it is not only the government of René Préval, elected in 2006 and once popular with the poor, that has faltered. Pledges of billions of dollars in aid from the international community remain unfulfilled, with only a fraction of the more than $5bn promised so far delivered. The delivery of crucial building materials has also been delayed. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, set up under the chairmanship of former US president Bill Clinton, met last month for the first time.
The displaced in the camps have suffered most, condemned to a cycle of waiting without any visible end. Moise “Jerry” Rosembert is standing in front of a scrap of yellow-plastered wall with his spray cans. It is all that remains of a house. He thinks for a moment and then begins, with areas of ochre paint at first, and then blocks of white and blue and red. It is only at the end, as he sketches in outlines and detail, that it is clear to me what he is painting: an old man with a crying child wrapped in the Haitian flag. It is about “waiting” he explains. Jerry is Haiti’s best-known graffiti artist.
In the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, his response – painted on walls across the capital – became the emblem for the nation. A map of Haiti, imagined as a crying face with a pair of praying hands, it demanded: “Please Help Us.” Six months later Jerry’s new mural speaks of a different anguish: an angry frustration widespread among Haitians that, despite the huge emergency response in the wake of the catastrophe and the promises of billions, they have been abandoned. A desperate place before the earthquake struck, despite the brief moment of international attention it has become more desperate still. The smell of death may be gone but Haiti is still dying.