Ten years after deadly Haiti quake, survivors feel forgotten

Amelie Baron, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 10 2020 11:28 AM

A woman prays among the rubble of the damaged main cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, Jan. 9, 2011. Allison Shelley, Reuters/File

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten years ago, Herlande Mitile was left disabled by the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti. Today, she uses a wheelchair jury-rigged with a piece of string, which means she cannot go far.

Result: she is trapped in her village outside Port-au-Prince. It was meant to be a model for reconstruction of the country after the disaster. 

Instead, the 36-year-old Mitile -- who once worked in the capital -- is dependent on her neighbors to survive.

"The doctor told me that if I went to physical therapy, I might walk again, but you have to go into the city for that. You need money for public transport and I don't have any," she explained.

"That's how I have become even more handicapped than I was to begin with," added Mitile, who has metal plates screwed into her hip and spine.

Before Jan. 12, 2010, she did not know a thing about earthquakes or the damage they can do.

But on that Tuesday, more than 200,000 Haitians were killed by the roaring temblor, many of them crushed to death when substandard concrete buildings crumbled on top of them.

Mitile was rescued from the debris eight days after the 7.0-magnitude quake. She was alive, but gravely injured.


After months in a makeshift camp, hundreds of which dotted the Port-au-Prince landscape after the tragedy, Mitile and her 2 daughters ended up in Village Lumane Casimir.

Named for one of Haiti's greatest singers, the community -- about 20 kilometers outside Port-au-Prince -- was created by the government, which offered lodging there to about 50 people disabled in the quake.

The government had hoped it would be an example or urban development for an impoverished country mired in corruption, and which to this day has scant real estate records.

The community was to have 3,000 quake-resistant homes, a market, an industrial area, police and fire stations, a school and a pharmacy.

On paper, it was a dream community. But the plans never came to fruition.

Like hundreds of other construction sites during the decade when the Petrocaribe program was running, the village was abandoned in 2014 with more than half the buildings undone.


Men walk past crucifixes at a mass grave site at Titanyen on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince Jan. 11, 2011. Jorge Silva, Reuters/File

The ambitious project died in the swirling Petrocaribe corruption controversy that sparked an eruption of public anger in 2018 -- anger that remains to this day.

Since the middle of that year, the public has regularly demonstrated in Haiti calling for more transparency in how the funds from Venezuela's Petrocaribe program were handled.

The scheme had allowed struggling Haiti to buy petroleum products more cheaply and on credit, but it was plagued by allegations of misuse of aid money allocated by Caracas.

The financial upheaval that resulted from the scandal doomed the village project, and the public administrative office on site to collect rent closed, creating a sort of real estate loophole.

So people kept coming to the complex, because all of a sudden, it was a great deal.

"I came to live here because rent had become too high in my old neighborhood," explained William Saint-Pierre, who simply squatted in one vacant house.

Saint-Pierre pays no rent for his 2-room dwelling, and doesn't pay any taxes on his off-book drinks business. 

But he also likes the safety of the village with its neatly arranged, brightly colored homes.

"In the cities after 5 or 6 o'clock, you have to stay inside, and doors have iron gates. Look around us -- at my little wooden door, at homes without a security wall," Saint-Pierre said.

"I'm getting too old to hear gunshots at all hours of the day and night," added the 62-year-old.


An injured child receives medical treatment after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince in this Jan. 13, 2010 file photo. Eduardo Munoz, Reuters/File

Despite some benefits, including the absence of gang violence, Village Lumane Casimir is nevertheless geographically isolated and without any officials to run it. 

That puts its most vulnerable residents at even higher risk.

Mitile cannot get around so she cannot find a job. She gets no public assistance. So she has to rely on handouts from neighbors.

"Sometimes, I've wanted to die," she admits, once her daughters aged 12 and 16 are out of earshot.

"When my neighbors cook, they call my little one and tell her to come get a bowl for me," she says, tapping nervously on her damaged wheelchair.

"Before Jan. 12 (the quake), we got by, but now, I'm worse than a baby."

In the village, which is effectively run by the residents themselves, those still suffering from injuries sustained in the quake and those who came seeking a better life say they feel forgotten by the government.

"If we had to wait for them to make good on their promises, we would be dead," Mitile says.

"There is no government. I am my own government."

© Agence France-Presse