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Little Improvement at Haiti's Epicentre

by Rob Reynolds

If you ask, where did all the money for Haiti go, one answer is: not here.

When the earthquake rumbled up from the earth directly below Leogane, 20,000-30,000 people were killed, and 80 to 90 per cent of the town's concrete buildings were reduced to rubble.

And, chunk by chunk, shovelful by shovelful, that's some of the rubble that Saint-Fort Mackenson and the other members of his work crew are clearing away. 

Mackenson, a thin young man with a mop of plaited hair, pauses to lean on his shovel and wipe the sweat from his face.

"It's very hard work to to clear this debris," he says in Kriyol, the French-related language of Haiti, "because we are using only our hands. We don't have any machinery. "

Their wages, paid by an aid organisation, are $5 a day. "The money that they pay is not enough for our needs," Mackenson said with a shrug. Still, its a job - something few people in Leogane have these days.

'Do-it-yourself' reconstruction

Reconstruction, many people here have concluded, will be a do-it-yourself job. In a few places, we saw men rebuilding houses, but nothing on the massive scale that would be needed to re-house the town's population. The builders said they've given up on any hope of help from the UN, the US, or the international aid community.

Leogane may have been at the epicentre of the earthquake but it hasn't been at the centre of attention in the six months since then. Many people here feel virtually forgotten.

The Place St Rose camp in the centre of town has become a semi-permanent home to more than 3,000 people. Its full of half-naked children and harried-looking women.

Jean Romuald Ferdinand showed us around the narrow, filth-strewn passageways that wind through the camp. He's one of the community leaders, and he's disappointed with how little has been done to help his neighbours:

"Since the earthquake we've heard so many promises. We know that billions of dollars have flowed into the country. But we don't see any changes so far."

As Ferdinand spoke, women washing and braiding each other's hair nearby nodded and muttered in agreement.

He continued:

"I thought after January we had an opportunity to change things but, from my point of view, we missed that opportunity. Based on how they have been handling the relief effort, I am pretty sure this country is not going anywhere."

Ferdinand said the biggest single need for his neighbours was adequate shelter. Right now, their dwellings are made from plastic sheets stretched over scavenged scraps of wood and a few bits of corrugated metal. These huts will be smashed flat by the first hurricane winds to blow through.

Bodies under debris

We caught up with Leogane's burly mayor, Alec Santos, outside the tent where he has been living, next to his badly damaged two-story home. He said from his perspective, it looks like the earthquake might have happened yesterday.

"My town is still under debris. For crying out loud, there are still some dead bodies under those buildings," said Santos, a former real estate developer who lived in Brooklyn for a decade and served in the US Army. He, too, cited the discrepancy between the aid money pledged or provided by the international community and paucity of progress on the ground:

"I heard there was so many millions going to Haiti, but I haven't seen it. I've heard a lot of promises. Promises, promises, promises. I'm hoping in the next few months I'll see some results."

If things haven't improved much for most people here, for some, they may be about to get worse.

Evictions

Inside a sweltering hut outside of town, we met Aurelien Joseph feeding porridge to Marie Jose, the youngest of his four children. The family has lived here, on privately owned land, since the earthquake, along with hundreds of others. Now, Joseph said, they have only a few days till they will be evicted.

"We have been occupying this private land because my house was destroyed and I didn't have anywhere to go. Now the owner is asking us to leave the land. And I don't know where to go."

Many of Leogane's churches were badly damaged by the quake, but that hasn't stopped people from worshiping. On a weekday afternoon recently, hundreds of people packed a new church set up in a large tent near the city's central square. They sang, clapped and twirled their rosaries as a lay deacon led a procession around the altar, holding high a representation of the crucified Christ. 

In the past six months, many visitors have admired the Haitian people's great resilience, perseverance, and unswerving religious faith. In the end those qualities may be worth much more than the millions of dollars in aid - money that so far has done little to help them rebuild their lives.

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