Haiti, six years after the earthquake


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Published: January 29th 2016
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As we prepared for our flights to Haiti, CNN informed us that there were riots in the capital, Port-au-Prince. We knew Haiti was going to be tricky but political riots are more than we had bargained for.

Haitians are annoyed and frustrated because, after years of electoral fraud and corruption, the Electoral Commission has decided to postpone the presidential elections. Some groups had decided to riot to show just how annoyed they were. Rioting has been a favourite way to make a political point here ever since it worked in the 1800s to get rid of the Spanish.

As we board our plane bound for Haiti, we scan for any war correspondents. Luckily, none spotted.

We arrive to a peaceful city - well, noisy, busy, even frantic but no sign of any rioters. Our hotel is the Oloffson, originally a posh mansion that became a hotel in the'30s. It is a "gingerbread house", being built of white painted wood with intricate fretwork, balconies and turrets. It is a three-storey Caribbean fairy castle, or maybe a voodoo lair?

The Oloffson has always been THE place to stay and the rooms bear the names of famous ex-occupants - Mike Jagger in the next room; Warren Buffet along the hall. Graham Greene stayed on the other side of the building while he wrote "The Comedians", which is largely set in the hotel.

With little tourism, the Oloffson is now a shadow of its former self with tiles loose on the roof, gaps around the windows and everything needing a coat of paint. Tatty but still atmospheric and beautiful.

Our wandering and touring around the city shows us much evidence of the 2010 earthquake. Repeatedly we are asked to look at an empty area of rubble and told " this used to be a bank, a school, an apartment block". 25,000 died in the 35 second earthquake; 180,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The Notre Dame cathedral is a ruin, ragged fingers of wall reaching for the sky. Two stained glass windows incongruously survived but there is no roof, no tower and, as yet, no reconstruction. Indeed,, we are surprised by the lack of reconstruction - many damaged and cracked buildings are still being used despite looking very fragile. Interestingly, the wooden gingerbread houses survived the earthquake very well.

There are some new commercial and government buildings but new housing seems rare. Private, middle class houses have been repaired or rebuilt but where is the housing for the poor? In the refugee areas, the tents have been replaced by tin shacks. An entire new suburb of shacks has been built on the hills to the north. Thousands of shacks with no electricity and most with no water or sewage. We see a charity delivering water by tanker - a stop gap measure six years on.

This is the only charity we see working. We do meet American missionaries who are helping establish and support schools but no other charities. Have they all moved on to the next world crisis?

And the displaced Haitians are some of the poorest people we have ever met. The lack of sanitation, water and medical care also makes then some of the most vulnerable. Our ability to interact with them is limited. Like most shanty towns, these are dangerous places. They are off limits for us even with our driver, who "worked for The Times" reporting the earthquake,.

One building that has been rebuilt is the Iron Market where they sell food, spices and everything for your own voodoo ceremony. This is not for tourists, there are almost no tourists, this is for local people.

Voodoo has lots of spirits and complex beliefs. Stalls sell dolls, masks, powders, drinks, turtles and much that we don't understand. Turtle blood is an intrinsic part of voodoo potions, we are told.

We spot a spirit cradling in her arms a cross with Jesus crucified on it. Oh yes, we are told, voodoo is fully integrated into the Catholic church.

Thursday night at the Oloffson is jazz night. Jazz night starts with a voodoo ceremony. Then a modern dance troupe perform to voodoo drums. And then RAM, the Hotel owner's jazz band, play. The hotel is filled with locals and expats, it is quite a night.

Tomorrow we are off to Jacmel for their Carnival!


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