Fiammetta Cappellini, AVSI.

Those Who Remained in Haiti

There's no coherent plan for reconstruction, while a million homeless still live in haphazard shelters. What is happening to Haiti 6 months after the earthquake? We asked those who have remained, living every day with this people still “in vigil.”
Alessandra Stoppa

The house is rubble. “I’m not dead–call 39079920 to print t-shirts,” Atis wrote on the most visible rock in the debris. He wants it to be known that he is there, and that he’s working. The earthquake covered his life with dust and blood, and he goes over it with paint. Let’s see if the paint wins out over the dust. Atis makes do. He’s probably printing the t-shirts under one of the thousands of plastic sheets that by now suffocate every inch of the city.

The shelters are everywhere, hiding what little structure remained of the capital of Haiti, demolished by the January 12th quake. It’s chaos. Six months after the earthquake, the only thing to come on time is the rainy season. The weight of the water does not spare the honeycomb of plastic cubes that have insinuated themselves into the misery. At least the circle of mountains protects the city from hurricanes–but not from its history. The past and the present of Haiti are accumulated like the garbage in the mud, where women fry food to sell and the barber continues to ply his trade, in the open air. The kids collect sacks of water and foist them on drivers in the capital’s traffic without roads. The strongest are paid by the day to clear the city of its remains.

The face of Darline. Those who go back and forth to Haiti say something you don’t expect: “It’s as if nothing happened. In the faces of the people, I mean. Only the ruins speak to you of the earthquake.” Vito Schimero is one of the many doctors who, since January, take turns using their vacation time to help out at AVSI in Port-au-Prince. At morning’s light, they leave for one of the camps, medical supplies aboard their pick-up. “They set up the clinic, and in the evening take everything down, then do it all again the next day,” recounts Fiammetta Cappellini, the AVSI Director on the island, whose Skype bulletins revealed the disaster to Italy, beginning in the first hours in which her missionary work of years was cruelly accelerated. And yet, she has never considered leaving. She has stayed there, where, by 7:00 pm, the sun goes out like a candle.

Black out and curfew. “Many seem to have set aside the earthquake,” continues Vito. The divinity in voodoo is disinterested, but explains everything. And everything is justified and shelved. So the people sit on the edge of a chasm. Or in a corner of the tent, like Darline, immobile. She doesn’t even see her nine-month-old son, there all dirty and alone. You can understand the novelty of the work of AVSI in observing the suprise on her face–she was astonished at having been asked to breastfeed her child. “We teach it to them and we prolong it as long as possible,” explains Fiammetta. It is one of the instruments for educating these mothers who lose sight of their children and themselves. “Slowly, slowly, you see a change.” A word to the other mothers who began caring for Darline’s son was sufficient for her to raise her head, “Thank you for doing it [caring for the child]. Tomorrow, I will feel better.” This prompted Jolette, who helps AVSI as an interpreter, to stop Vito at the end of the day, and say, “Today, I understood that you are not here to help people with their illnesses. Your interest is in changing their way of looking at themselves.”

Crushed by continual need, relationships are reduced to immediate response. Water. Medicine. Peanut butter. Or the little hand searching your pocket for a dollar. “It’s the greatest difficulty: making a breach in the mentality, creating the social fabric,” says Vito. “This is only achieved by a true human presence” that opens the soul and enables things, over time, to take on another dynamic.

What you want–a foreigner, a Christian, eager to help–counts for little. “The key is the bond with those who work with you. They are the closest relationships, capable of creating God-knows-what thing,” to the point of touching even the spiniest souls–such as the nervous group of young men who presented themselves at the AVSI base, demanding material and money, and accusing the workers of pocketing the aid. “We’re here to work, not to steal,” they were told, but they didn’t believe it. “Stay with us one day.” They did so. From then on, they wanted to work. “We gave them tools. They have gone on for weeks,” recounts Fiammetta.“If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

God on their lips. They ask for work, but what they’re really asking for is dignity, a life that belongs to them. In organizing the reconstruction, Fiammetta convokes the people according to the neighborhood they came from, so that they can be the ones to make the decisions. “The first reaction is: ‘I don’t even know where I’ll be in two months.’ But knowing that you will be there with them in two months encourages them immediately.” The fact that someone remains gives hope. “Seeing those who were with them before, during, and after the earthquake,” says Giovanni Galli, a surgeon of the Resilience Association, “makes them say, ‘We’ll make it.’” It breaks through a life crushed by the present, a life lived only day by day, with God on their lips in every sentence. “The Haitian people are in vigil, waiting for something to happen,” says Maddalena Boschetti, over the din of the rain beating on the sheet metal roof. She is a missionary in Haiti’s northwest province. With a good driver and a good off-road vehicle, it takes at least eight hours from the capital, but thousands took refuge there after the earthquake, fleeing with what they had. “Now, the work of the Church is to help them live there.” The province is poorer than the capital, and devastated. “We’re trying to redeem it in every way possible”–with a little bit of work, or with the TV projection of the World Cup. The children study the countries of the teams. They don’t remember that forty-sixth minute of the World Cup in Germany in 1974, when Haiti scored against Italy, thus leading 1-0. This year’s team doesn’t match that national team, which ended up losing 3 to 1, but gave everyone Emmanuel Sanon, the national hero who kicked that goal past [the legendary Italian goalkeeper] Dino Zoff. Now is the time to link the expectations of this people to reality. “And developing the province is precisely a road for the renewal of this country.”

In January, everyone was saying that the earthquake would be a resource, a turning point. But without a plan for reconstruction, the rain will carry away the writing of Atis. It won’t be a voodoo loa who erases the paint; there’s no spirit to appease. It’s just not enough to write over what happened. John Paul II, leaving Port-au-Prince 28 years ago, said, “Things have to change here.” His voice still echoes in the daily work of those who labor amidst this disintegrated people.

Everything is lacking in Haiti, but not because of the earthquake.
The disaster only betrayed the inconsistency of an entire nation, a government that does not yet stand on its own two feet and whose reconstruction lacks even the most basic plan. The commission responsible for managing the emergency was only nominated less than a month ago. “And the 15 billion dollars of international aid are real, but the people don’t see it used,” says Fiammetta on the way to Cité Soleil, a hot zone, the most dangerous. But the trust of the people enables AVSI to enter without escort, and to set up something impossible. Every day, the children go to school, sitting on the ground in the tents. In February, there were 200, while today there are 3,000. In the meantime, the nutrition program continues, as does health education and the census of children.

“The need is boundless. You can’t fool yourself that you’re solving the problem,” recounts Giacomo Bona, a nurse. “You care for people. You don’t heal anything or anyone”–much less the woman who enters the clinic, burned from head to foot. In a more advanced country, she would be in a hyperbaric chamber, but Giacomo has only antibiotic cream, which he spreads on her. Three days later, he sees her again: “I couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re healing!’ And it wasn’t I who healed her.” So it is for every wound. “The country will be born again from the catastrophe,” says Maddalena. “I have no logical reason to say this to you. But here everything cries to God to transform it into something positive.”