In Haiti, it’s one miserable place after another
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org February 19, 2012 6:18PM
A young child sits barefoot and unclothed on a pile of rubble along the Caribbean Sea in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: January 24, 2013 8:23PM
Even before the 2010 earthquake, Cite Soleil was a godforsaken place.
The densely populated, incredibly impoverished slum section of Port-au-Prince was notorious for crime, disease and misery. The earthquake only made matters worse.
Displaced families took up residence there and some 4,000 convicts who escaped from the capital’s demolished jail returned. Shootings, rape and robbery are common. Today, Cite Soleil is reputed to be one of the poorest and most dangerous places in the world.
We needed an escort to enter and, it turned out, to exit.
It is dangerous to drive the streets, let alone get out and walk the maze of bullet-riddled shanties and huts that so many call home.
But we went to check out a new music school and a new trauma center — places where acoustic guitars and hospital beds donated by people living in the Chicago suburbs have ended up.
On the far end of slums, where the sea meets the squalor, St. Marie Hospital sits like a lifeguard tower above treacherous waters. Its bright blue and white-washed walls are a stark contrast to the blur of gray metal, blue tarp and overall dinge that comprise Cite Soleil.
Once John Shattuck’s latest shipment of beds and supplies arrives, the 11-room building will be open for business. None to soon, considering that the only other trauma center in the area closed in December.
Marcel Jean and Joel Janeus grew up here. Today, they are community leaders who run the Cite Soleil schools, including the newly opened music school. They carry enough influence among gang leaders to gain us entry.
“In Cite Soleil, children are hungry. They come to school hungry and they go home hungry,” Jean says. “When you have nothing, music is not a priority.”
But, he adds, music is what they need.
“Music can make them happy, can give them a dream,” Janeus says. “If children can learn to shoot a gun, they can learn to play an instrument.”
The teachers are volunteers, mostly people who grew up in the slums and who have returned to give back.
On this day, Shattuck delivers three guitars, two xylophones and some tambourines, a sneak peek at what is to come in the next cargo container out of the Munster, Ind., warehouse, where he stores donations.
Almost immediately, the teachers and students start to jam. There are 200 students enrolled in the music program, resulting in long waits for a chance to play an instrument.
The kids don’t mind. “These are kids who have traded the streets for the chance to make music,” Janeus says.
The idea for donating musical instruments came from Shattuck’s 13-year-old son, Trey, who plays seven instruments and is president of the Hickory Creek Middle School band in Frankfort.
After we witness the progress, we tour the devastation.
We cross a garbage-riddled expanse of beach that separates the new hospital from the old corrugated tin shacks where, incredibly, thousands of people live. Children spy us walking and run to greet us. They hold our hands, hug us and pull us toward their home.
They don’t know enough to be anything but proud of the 8-by-8 shanty where they eat, sleep and play, making kites out of garbage.
We enter one. Two teenage girls lay on beds. Their coiffed hair and clean clothes belie their way of life. The walls, much like the walls of any teenager’s bedroom, are covered in magazine pages, some of them just pages of text but still a vast improvement to the ugly metal they hide.
Outside the hut, we are surrounded by more children, some barefoot, some without clothes. Older kids approach us, too, asking, oddly enough, if we are on Facebook or if we have email. Why they care is baffling, given there is no electricity in the tents.
Our visit is brief inside the warren of homes. We don’t want to tempt fate.
On our way back to the entrance, we must stop and wait for our escort — four men in a green Ford Explorer — to get the OK from one of the turf bosses to lead us out.
Our vehicle stops behind theirs and we wait.
The detention makes our interpreter nervous.
“I’ve seen this happen before, everything is good and then everything is very bad,” says Antoine Jean. “We need to go.”
But Shattuck doesn’t dare step on the gas, not without a sign from our escorts, who are exchanging angry words in Creole with two men from the neighborhood.
Finally, after what seems like two hours but is probably just 10 minutes, we are allowed to pass and both vehicles barrel toward the exit.
At the busy intersection that signifies the border, our escorts shout to some guys hanging at the corner and the men rush to stop traffic so we can turn our separate ways.
From one miserable locale to another, we head to the tent city in Petionville, where Antoine’s sister has lived since the earthquake.
But now Darlene Jean has a job and has plans to move out of the tents into a real home in just a few weeks.
We park our vehicle and wait for Antoine to find a familiar face to keep an eye on it while we enter the encampment.
From a bustling street, we step into the maze and snake our way along a narrow, muddy path that takes us past tent after tent. Women wash clothes and their hair in the entryways.
“Bonjour,” they say, smiling.
Inside, the tents are dark, suffocatingly hot and stuffed to the gills with the owners’ possessions. Some have two beds, some have dressers or small tables. None has optimal space for cooking. Food is cooked on the dirt floor, which explains why there are so many burn victims in the tents.
I slip on the muddy path, scraping my arm on a metal wall and immediately wonder if I can get tetanus or some weird infection in the wound.
And then it hits me, these people live here, every day, all day — on Mondays when most Americans are complaining that they have to go to work, on Fridays when they are gearing up for a fun weekend. On all days, holidays and rainy days, these people are here inside these tents.
With their children.
We get to our destination only to learn that Antoine’s sister is not there.
Anything could explain why she missed our appointment. Maybe she couldn’t find a tap-tap, one of the small, brightly colored open-air buses that locals rely on for transportation. Maybe the country’s current gas shortage is to blame. Or maybe it’s the traffic, which can add several hours to a simple commute on any given day, just because.
Another time, Antoine says, shrugging. He is not angry at his sister. In a country where there are so many other, more serious things to be angry about, missed appointments barely register a blip on the screen.