Witnesses and heroes of the Haiti earthquake
The following witness accounts were collected on 23 January 2010 in the town of Gressier, at the displaced persons camp at the church of Saint Caterine – the same day Oxfam International installed a drinking water distribution tank in what is the start of an operation to reach more than 110,000 people.
Menard Meneles, 54 “My whole class has died. All my pupils, all of them”
Menard’s husband saw how the school where she teaches collapsed. The fact that his wife was already at home – that day she decided to leave work a little earlier – was not enough for him to maintain his composure when he witnessed that. “I have lost colleagues, many of them. And my whole class has died. All my pupils, all of them. They died when the building came down,” Menard says with a lump in her throat.
Menard, her husband and their three children now live in an improvised tent at the edge of the Saint Caterine churchyard. “This is terrible. An elderly woman died here, a few metres away. She had trouble breathing… and last week a baby… Of course, there’s nothing of anything here,” the teacher reflects ruefully in perfect English.
She recounts how she rushed out of her house when the earthquake occurred. How she kept bumping into everything that fell in her path: timber, glass, wrought iron. “That’s where these injuries came from,” and she points to her leg and forehead. And how she then discovered her house in ruins, the house that she had taken fifteen years to pay for and build after a bank had left her without any savings, as she says. She and her family were able to retrieve some rice, a bit of maize, and a bit of this and that and they all went to the camp. “It’s impossible to get hold of anything here. Nobody has distributed food, only one agency came to give us soap and toothbrushes… and nobody uses brushes here.”
The black market has taken no time to flourish in the aftermath of the earthquake. “Everything has gone up in price, everything now is at least twice what it cost before. That is why, sometimes, when I wake up, I see that I’m missing a bag of rice, a bar of soap… Anything. But what can you do about it? You’ve seen what it’s like for us. People are desperate…,” Menard remarks charitably.
Marlene Richard, 23 “They told me that shortly after everyone had got out of there, the building collapsed”
Marlene Richard is young, pretty and, because of that, a little vain. Maybe that is why, in the midst of hundreds of shacks, she keeps her – short and tight – denim dress impeccable, puts her hair up under a green headscarf and wears heels. She is, she was, a children’s nursery assistant. She was there, with the children, when it all happened. “Everything shook. We were frightened and we evacuated the nursery. I ran off in the direction of my house. My parents, my sisters and my little brother were there. Thankfully they are all okay, although we lost everything,” she recounts. After a while, Marlene received a call. “It was from the nursery. They told me that shortly after we had got out of there, the building collapsed.”
Marlene’s family lives a few meters away from what used to be their house. “We’re there next to it, but there’s nothing left of what we had. They’ve forced us to come here; but here there’s nothing. There’s no food, or water, or anything that we can use for shelter. No medicine either… and I have problems with my stomach,” she points out with an air of resignation.
Despite everything she does not stop smiling. She’s young. “What is needed to fix this situation?” she says. “You have to get out of this, of course. But the real solution is for the buildings to be rebuilt properly, with the right materials and the necessary infrastructure to withstand earthquakes. After that there has to be investment in two key areas: education and health. That, and ensuring that we can all eat every day,” she concludes perceptively. Marlene says goodbye, walks a few steps and looks back before shouting out: “And your country? What can your country do for us?”
Elin Plantin, 65 “Since the earthquake, I don’t have much more than one cup of coffee a day”
Elin Plantin is sitting on a rock in front of the four sticks and various pieces of material that today make up his house. He is getting on in age, but he looks like an old man. Thin, leathery skin and a white beard. He slips as he gets up, but he holds on tight to his walking stick made out of a tree branch and digs it into the ground so as not to fall. He looks weak. “Since the earthquake, I don’t have much more than one cup of coffee a day. There is no money and nowhere to get hold of any food and water either,” he struggles to say as he rubs his eyelids with his left hand.
Elin was at home together with his wife Cilie, Cilie Tismé, and their five children when the ground started to shake. They are all okay, although one of them was injured in the earthquake. “The house collapsed and we couldn’t save anything,” he says regretfully.
Elin and Cilie are alone at this camp. “My children are in another camp on the other side of the hill,” he says as he glances up towards his wife. “This is my wife,” he repeats, smiling, and for a brief second his face lights up. “We are both here together, absolutely destitute, but together,” he concludes, while Cilie finishes washing a few vegetables that she has been lucky enough to get hold of today. At what price, nobody knows.