Chaos still reigns in Haiti. Suffering most from the after-effects of the great 2010 earthquake are the children—the natural disaster that killed nearly three percent of the population left thousands of them orphaned. Hungry and still in shock, they are easy prey for pedophile rings, organ merchants, and slave traders
Words and photographs by Carsten Stormer
First published in the July 2010 issue of ROGUE
Suddenly the mound of debris appeared, enormous and shrouded in dust, on the very spot where her mother had been sitting a second ago. Genése Denise Valentine didn't see her mother die, even though she was only yards away when, shortly before 5 P.M. on that January 12, 2010, the earthquake struck Haiti. Her mother's body was never recovered.
She sits there quietly, kneading her fingers. It's been two months since the disaster. “I was visiting the Croix des Bossales, like I used to do every day at about that time,” says Genése, referring to the biggest marketplace in Port-au-Prince. Her mother used to sell fruit and vegetables there. “I was looking towards her . . .” and then the tectonic plates shifted. She fell to the ground, heard people screaming. Dust was everywhere.
After the dark clouds had settled, Genése remained sitting for hours in front of the heap of debris that had buried her mother and watched while people dragged the dead and wounded out of the ruins. A neighbour recognized the little girl who sat motionless in shock and took her home to the slum quarter of Wharf Jeremie, near the port. This had largely been spared by the earthquake, simply because there was nothing there to destroy—corrugated iron structures don't collapse. Genése's father lives somewhere in the port of Jeremie, a 12-hour boat journey away from Port-au-Prince. “Papa doesn't know I'm still alive; he doesn't know Mama is dead.” She runs her hand over her face, as if she wants to wipe away reality like a speck of dirt.
Dawn is breaking as Genése wakes up. She is lying on a sheet of plastic spread on the mud floor. She blinks, wipes the sleep from her eyes, and shakes her head to get rid of last night's dreams. The first thing, today as every day, is to forget yesterday and avoid thinking of tomorrow . . . as best she can. Her knees are sore from the hard ground. She swats a mosquito and stares for a few moments at the spot of blood it leaves on her palm, then stands up and creeps out of the few square yards under corrugated iron that she now calls home. Genése is a chubby 14-year-old girl with sad eyes. Her hair is done into lots of tiny plaits. She is hungry, for last night, once again, there was nothing for supper except a gulp of water. She walks through the slum. She is wearing clothes that look out of place in this seedy locality: white T-shirt, white dress, slides in her hair. In her hand she carries a can. She scurries past corrugated iron huts and rusting hulks of cars, skirts around heaps of refuse, fends off a barking dog, skips over piles of excrement. There is a stench of filth and urine. The public water tap, once again, isn't yielding a drop of water. She sits down among the ruins of a house, puts her head in her hands. “I do miss my Mama,” says Genése, starting to cry.
She keeps house for the woman who took her in: she cleans and cooks, fetches water, keeps an eye on the two children. Sometimes she gets clipped on the ear, says Genése, looking down to the ground with a hand on her cheek. And sometimes there's some food, but only what's left over by the family. “I want to get back to my Papa,” she says. But how?
Genése is just one of ten thousand children who were orphaned by the earthquake. Many of them are homeless and drift around Port-au-Prince. Children like Genése are called restavec—translated, that means “stay-withs,” people who stay with someone else. In Haiti, that actually means slaving away for someone. Even before the earthquake, this was the only way many poor families could dispose of the children they were unable to feed—give them away as low-cost little workhorses.
Port-au-Prince is fast becoming the metropolis of lost children. They stream in from the devastated provinces, each one alone, hoping they will be able to survive here. They're everywhere: they beg in the streets, they sleep on benches, in parks, on the pavements. Many of them end up in orphanages, even though their parents may be still living. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other charities, working in cooperation with the Haiti government, are trying to get as many children as possible onto a database and reunite them with their families. They are easy prey for pedophile rings, organ merchants, and slave traders ready to sell children quickly to adoptive parents abroad, bypassing official procedures. Raped children have begun to appear in the camps.
At the end of a narrow alley in the Cité Militaire sector of the city, beside a temporary encampment of tents and a ruined basketball pitch, is the Wayòm Timoun (“Kingdom of Children”) orphanage. Pastor Jean Rigeaud Antoine is standing in the common room, holding the New Testament in one hand; two infants who address him as “Papi” are clinging onto the other hand. The priest is smiling at them with weary eyes. There are 62 children living in his refuge. Before the earthquake there were 40, of whom two girls were killed and three other children are missing. He hasn't got a great deal to offer the children, says Antoine. Two hot meals a day, milk for the infants, vitamins supplied by charities, a bed, and some affection. And he gives them lessons in the afternoons.
Not all the children here are orphans, explains the pastor. Many of them have a parent, or at least some kind of relative, an uncle or a granny who could have looked after them, only they are too poor and hardly able to make ends meet themselves. Even before the earthquake, it was quite normal in Haiti for parents to send children to an orphanage. Forty-two percent of Haiti's 8.7 million inhabitants are under 14 years of age. So far, UNICEF has registered over 23,000 children in 350 homes in the capital, where they are awaiting adoption by families in France, USA, or Canada. “I don't want my children to be adopted, not while we're still unsure whether or not their own family are still alive,” says the pastor. “Haiti needs its children!”
A bell rings for lunch. The boys and girls rush into the backyard. On the tables are plates of rice and beans and some fish. There is 9-year-old Francine, who was found in the street five months ago, half starved. She never smiles. Pierre, 11, was brought in by neighbors shortly after the earthquake. Two weeks ago, a young couple came to the door of the orphanage and pushed two-year-old Mathilde into the vicar's arms. “What can I do? If I don't take them in, these children will probably die,” says Antoine, shrugging his shoulders. Many of them have scars on their hearts. A boy wearing a Barcelona FC shirt rushes up to the priest, howling, and flings his arms round Pastor Antoine's thighs. “What's the matter, Jean Baptiste? Are you okay?” The boy doesn't say anything, stays with his face pressed against him. The priest goes outside with him and throws him a ball, and the boy stops crying. “Many of the children are simply terrified of being inside a building,” he says. “They are traumatized.” That's why he has set up a dozen tents in front of the orphanage, where the children sleep at night. “All of us are afraid of further tremors.” Nearly everyone in the city has been sleeping outdoors all this time.
It's not easy to make ends meet, he says. In order to feed his children he goes begging in the neighbourhood each afternoon: some rice, beans, vegetables, sometimes a few Haiti gourdes (the local currency). Whoever is able to, helps. On Sundays he preaches love for one's neighbour, and passes the collection plate around. But if it wasn't for his wife, he would have to close the orphanage. She is in Miami working as a nurse and sends money back to Port-au-Prince regularly. “Recently, she's taken a second job. Without that I wouldn't be able to feed the children.”
According to the official statistics, 220,000 people lost their lives on the 12th of January—that’s almost three per cent of the Haitian population. Approximately 30% of the Port-au-Prince population was wiped out. Of the dead, about 50,000 were children, possibly more. Haiti was destroyed; the state has ceased to function. More than a million people lost their homes. Port-au-Prince, the capital city, has turned into one vast hostel for the homeless. Hundreds of camps have sprung up all over the city—on golf courses and football fields, on roadsides, in gardens, on ruined sites, on the Champs de Mars in front of the presidential palace, beside the airport runway, next to the collapsed cathedral. It's a patchwork quilt of wretchedness cobbled together out of plastic sheeting, bits of cloth, and corrugated iron; the people in it are suffering from typhus, dysentery, malaria, and dengue fever. Many of the camps are still without latrines or electricity and depend on supplies of relief goods delivered by international charities and the U.N. Life in Haiti is a mixture of returning normality and helpless despair.
The people now measure time in terms of before and after the quake—a new timescale centered on Hour Zero. Relief organizations, some 900 of them, are trying to catapult Haiti back into the future. It's a kind of experiment, which is supposed to lead to a much-improved Haiti. However, chaos still reigns; the scale of the catastrophe was overpowering. The death toll is still rising as workers drag more bodies from the ruins. Many areas have yet to receive relief supplies; the camps are filled to overflowing; and convoys going out into the countryside need armed escorts to protect them from looters. In early March, two Swiss nurses working for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières were abducted (and released five days later). Very soon the rainy season will begin, and the camps will be turned into a morass of germs and epidemics.
Many children in the city's hospitals are still lying under plastic sheeting, their limbs in plaster with pegs sticking out like antennae. Boys and girls with missing arms and legs, with head wounds, contusions, multiple fractures. For example, in the field hospital set up by the charity Merlin in the sector of the city called Delmas 33, a tennis court serves as a temporary site, squeezed between ruined buildings and a camp for homeless people. There are six tents, four makeshift toilets, 30 inpatients, and up to 250 outpatients a day, as well as equipment and medicines for every eventuality.
Amputations are only performed if it is impossible to save the limb. A plastic surgeon and an orthopaedic surgeon work together, supported by three nurses. Sometimes this is the only possible way of saving a life.
In one tent, 19-year-old Etienne Emanuel is lying on a bunk. He is a slim lad with a pockmarked face. A fan is stirring the March heat that is building up in the tent. He lay for two days under the ruins of his home, where all the other members of his family died. His cousin was lying a few yards away, trapped in the ruins; he screamed until he was crushed to death. Etienne considers himself lucky. “I only lost my right leg. I was sure I was going to die,” he says, heaving himself into a wheelchair. He feels the bandage on the stump of his leg. It was a whole week before anyone took him to a doctor, and by that time gangrene had set into his thigh. Next to him lies his friend Johnny, snoozing. His right arm was crushed to a pulp by a falling wall, and he thinks life is pretty lousy. Orphans Woody and Scotty are rushing about between the tents. In the operation tent nearby, the surgeons are amputating 17-year-old Lovely Borgeld's lower left leg. Three hours later, still disoriented by anaesthetic, the girl is staring speechless at the bandaged stump of her leg. Tears run down her cheeks, and her shoulders shake. Lovely Borgeld is a pretty, petite girl with plaited rasta locks and a T-shirt too large for her. After the earthquake, relatives had taken her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic, where for eight weeks her leg wound was treated with bleach and vinegar. It finally became so badly infected that she was sent back to Haiti. All the doctors in the Merlin hospital could do was to cut off the leg.
“Jesus! Jesus!” the girl murmurs. “I'm only seventeen, and my life is at an end. Why didn't they let me die? Why should it be me? Why, oh why?” She repeats the words again and again for hours, like a mantra of despair. She is breathing heavily and staring blankly. Lovely keeps stroking her good leg with her right hand—and with the left one, the place where her lower leg used to be. Her torso is rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. She keeps getting sick. When a crutch falls to the ground she jumps as if she'd heard a gunshot.
Behind the rusty door of a roofless house in the slums of Wharf Jeremie, Genése is devouring her first meal since yesterday. Rice and beans, with a few fragments of chicken. It's midday. A psychiatrist and social workers from the German charity Kindernothilfe (Emergency Aid for Children) are working with the enslaved children of this area, 120 boys and girls. For a couple of hours each day, they are allowed to be children and forget reality. They can sing, dance and laugh—and they get a hot meal each day. Nobody shouts at them; nobody hits them. The same story is heard a hundred times over. They are children like Genése and her best friend Ketéléne, whose parents were killed in the earthquake and who have been condemned to drudgery in strangers' homes since. All these children are put on a register, and their details are compared with those held by other organizations so that in the luckier cases children can be reunited with their parents. A child with no name and no identity is fair game for poachers, says psychiatrist Vladimir Constant. After the meal, Constant takes Genése aside, caresses her cheek, and tells her that a lady from the Haitian social services office will soon be coming to see her.
“Genése, the lady will take you to your father in Jeremie,” says Vladimir
For a long moment Genése stares at the psychiatrist in disbelief, her face as unmoving as an ice cube. Then she says the single word, “Papa!”