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A Belgian relives Haiti earthquake eight years after

Journalist and atheist tells how she got to appreciate the power of religion

BY HG HELPS
Editor-at-Large
helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Journalist Maude Malengrez left Belgium for Haiti in 2003 with a blank page and pen ready to take notes of what the north Caribbean island was like.

The reality was one of wide-eyed amazement soon after the aircraft touched the Francophone soil similar to that of her native land. Her assignment was to cover a debut theatre festival in the country's capital, Port-au-Prince — which still continues. On that initial trip, she met people whom she described as “very interesting”, numbered among them writers, poets, and human rights defenders.

“I was kind of overwhelmed by all these people who were so bright, talented; but also, so much concern about what was happening in the society and trying to change it,” she shared with the Jamaica Observer during an interview in this humungously poor country recently. “I thought it was very inspiring. It was my first experience. Then I came back several times as a journalist to cover various things — development issues and things like that.”

It was at that point that she convinced herself that she wanted to have the experience of living and working in the former colony of France, the only country that she would have resided outside of her native land.

Ten years ago, in 2008, she made that huge step to relocate. During the early period Maude worked in media as a freelancer, and then she was snatched up by FOKAL — the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty — to create a media support programme.

During the first week of her new employment, a life-changing event occurred, not only for herself, but for several hundreds of thousands who also called that huge country home. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country, its epicentre 25 kilometres southwest of Port-au-Prince. Not since the 18th Ccentury did such a quake hit the place. Two aftershocks the same day measuring 5.9 and 5.5 on the Richter scale also intervened. More aftershocks were to follow way into November of that year at various points.

The situation had far-reaching effects. Buildings collapsed, many due to the lack of building codes; bodies piled up at morgues, some having to be buried in mass graves; the National Palace, which housed the Haitian President, fell to its knees ... the Cathedral too. Hospitals were brutalised by the quake's force and could not offer adequate health care; prisoners escaped, and all told, over three million people were dislocated — a third of the country's population estimated at closer to 10 million. A cholera outbreak later in the year made hundreds more sick.

“I was at work at FOKAL when the earthquake hit Haiti,” Maude recalled. “I was hired by FOKAL five days before the earthquake. When the earthquake hit, it was very terrifying. A part of the office collapsed. I soon found out that the house that I lived had also collapsed, so I had to, like others, stay in the parking lot for the first few days.

“The place shook so much that we all fell. That's how I stayed alive in that building. It is a brick building, but made of wires, but it can shake without collapsing right away. Its gonna stay as long as possible for you to escape.

“It was in the late afternoon around 5 o'clock and we all went to the parking lot trying to figure out what was happening. We knew it was an earthquake, but it was difficult to understand if it was major. We were feeling it was a major event because we saw several buildings in the surroundings near FOKAL damaged and then you could hear people screaming. But some of them were very calm searching for their loved ones, because all the communication was shut down, so you had no means but to walk to your house or work or other places,” she related.

Remarking that the affected Haitian people were “very focused”, Maude also remembered vividly how there was smog all over the capital, a “bad scent”, and how some houses were completely destroyed a couple of days after the earthquake hit.

It was during that time that she got a good feel of how religion could move a people and bring them closer to each other.

“People were gathering in the streets and praying. I am an atheist. I was raised in a family of atheists in Belgium and, naturally, we don't believe in God. But that night — it's not that I believe in God now — but I really understood the power of religion. It was extremely powerful to hear these people.

“It's not about faith. I don't have faith in any God, but I kind of felt the force of the religion and how things were going on for the other people and I thought it was very powerful. I was so calm listening to them singing. I knew there was an earthquake and I am still very atheist, I still don't go to church, but I was touched by how those who were religious handled the situation,” she stated.

The quake marked one of the scariest moments of her life, what with all the shaking for a sustained period of time. She was on the third floor of the building and looking toward the ground all the time, saying 'it's gonna collapse, it's gonna collapse', thinking that she would have died.

What transpired on the day, she suggested, were moments of sadness resulting from the massive suffering of other people. “It was really sad what was happening to the country and to the people who really didn't need that. In 2009 I remember there was a sense of stability that was really needed. You could feel that there was kind of hope. There had been two or three years of stability and then, pow! There was a lot of sadness for friends who had lost their girlfriend, their mom… and many more.

“They had to be burning bodies that were in the streets. It was a risk for the city and the diseases. A lot of bodies were taken out of Port-au-Prince towards the north.

“We don't know exactly how many people died overall. The President at the time said it was over 300,000 people had died, but it was kind of a political thing at the time. Some say its around 100,000 or 150,000.

“The first people that helped were Haitians helping Haitians. There was solidarity and the strength of the people. The people helped each other a lot, neighbour helping neighbour. There was so much tenderness in the way the people were behaving with each other. People were always touching you. It was kind of something about being alive. It was very strong. These people are heroes until now. I was feeling terrible that I could not help like some people.

“The Cubans had more doctors coming in, on top of the many Cuban doctors that were here before worked overtime. Cubans are loved here because of the healt care. They are really the ones who did the job in the remote areas.”

Unlike in normal times when doors had to be locked at night, in the aftermath of the earthquake most doors remained open throughout the dark, at least for the first week after, oblivious of potential looting, which Maude said was almost non-existent, despite news to the contrary presented by major global news organisations.

The need to keep the doors open, she reasoned, was more to open the lines of communication… that others would know that there were people alive in the houses.

“I will always remember that everything was completely open. Only a few incidents of looting occurred downtown. Some international press focused on that, but it was not the true story. Some people were stealing in an effort to try and sell things back to survive, but the stealing wasn't major.”

A week after the quake struck, Maude left for her native Belgium to stay with family. She remained there for a little over a month.

Her supply of food had run out, she had no money, no place to stay and, despite her best wishes to help others, it was almost an impossibility to reach out to others without the requisite resources. That's why leaving for Belgium was the next best thing as, on the one hand, the scarce resources that were trickling in from foreign donors would be shared by one less body.

Practising her journalism was hampered by telecommunication hurdles. Even trying to make a blog with friends, to put up names of some people who she knew were alive so that people in the Diaspora could know their status, almost fell flat, as the Internet connection was horribly weak.

By the time she returned to Haiti, there were thousands of aid workers and representatives of non-governmental organisations all over the place.

Now, eight years after, has the restoration process gone fast enough? This was the obvious question put to her.

“I wouldn't qualify fast enough. When you look at Italy or Latvia, there have been earthquakes 15 years ago and they still haven't recovered from them. Everywhere its difficult, but here the problem is that the way it was managed … the post-earthquake management. I don't think it did any good for the feeling of ownership for the people here, because it was like turning everyone into victims needing help for everything, which wasn't true. But because of the relations of power between the strangers and the aid people, and the Haitians and the politicians, it kind of resulted in collateral damage. It's not just the building and the dead people, but some social dynamics that were created and perverted things that did some harm,” the senior journalist said.

She also does not harbour thoughts that Haiti will recover fully in another five years due to the magnitude of damage to buildings.

Power supply, eight years later, is still nowhere back to normal days. It is a regular sight to witness houses in the capital staying dark at night due to inadequate energy being supplied by Electricite d' Haiti (Haiti Electric Utility) — the lone electricity provider on the land that is bordered by the Dominican Republic, which along with Haiti forms the island of Hispaniola.

It has emerged that the company does not have the capacity to give electricity to everyone, and there are problems with management, resulting in neighbourhoods with very little electricity per day. An estimated 38 per cent of the population now has access to electricity.

Those who can afford it have generators and inverters at home.

In the aftermath of the disaster, several lending organisations cancelled Haiti's international debt and many pledges of assistance came in, some of which were never fulfilled.

Despite all the challenges, Maude has no immediate plans to leave Haiti.

“I don't know if I am going to be here for the rest of my life or for how long, because I don't like to make pronouncements because you never know what will happen in your life, and I know it's a country where its somehow difficult to live; not necessarily for me, but its difficult to see my friends wanting to leave the country because they see no hope here and I understand there are so much challenges and so many ways to be disappointed by the situation.

“I love the people here. They are brilliant and funny, but sometimes they are traumatised too, so that's the difficult part of it.”

She will continue in her role as media support programme coordinator for FOKAL — a job in which she mainly identifies training for young journalists in Haiti.

“It's also why I am staying here. Everyone is replaceable, but it's just that I feel that it can be useful for young people to create more job opportunities here, to also organise things like debates, conference, shows, screenings, and everything,” she said of her job.

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