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A family amid the rubble of their home in Les Cayes, which was destroyed on August 14th (Source: Picture Alliance)

Haiti and its people under constant stress 

Goudou Goudou, this onomatopoeic word from the Creole language, was invented by the people of Haiti in 2010 to describe the most devastating natural disaster in the history of Latin America: 316,000 people died in the severe earthquake on that January 12, hundreds of thousands were injured and at least 1.8 million lost their homes. To this day, the desperately poor Caribbean state has not recovered. When the earth shook again on August 14, 2021, and the seismological measuring stations registered an even more violent intensity than in 2010 (7.0) at 7.2 on the Richter scale, the nightmare suffered then was immediately present again.

Text: Jürgen Schübelin, photos: picture alliance, Kindernothilfe-partner, Reinhard Schaller

Once again, the people - this time in the green southwest of the island of Hispaniola - were caught completely unprepared. Hundreds of buildings collapsed in the two largest cities in the region, Les Cayes and Jérémie. Ulrike Schaller, a physiotherapist from the Black Forest, has been living and working with her husband Reinhard as a development aid worker in Les Cayes and Port-à-Piment since 1998. They are involved there, among other things, in a vocational school co-financed by Kindernothilfe. Ms. Schaller, describes how she experienced that Saturday morning, August 14, when at 8:29 a.m. the earth began to shake: "It was a terrible feeling, like being on water, everything suddenly seemed to float." Glasses and books fell from the shelves to the floor. Fortunately, however, the house held firm. A short time later, the Hospital Centre de Santé Lumière, one of the projects in which Ulrike Schaller is involved, began to fill up with injured people: "Most of the children and adults who were brought to the hospital quite often on pickup trucks or in buses - but some also on motorcycles," reports the physiotherapist, "had broken bones in their arms, legs, thighs - or had suffered severe facial injuries, bruises and contusions. Very importantly, we managed to quickly stop the bleeding and splint the fractures." 

A girl at the bedside of her injured mother in the Hospital Général in Les Cayes (Source: Picture Alliance)
A girl at the bedside of her injured mother in the Hospital Général in Les Cayes; her father was killed in the earthquake, her brother is also seriously injured

 

Freshly operated patients in the parking lot

After only a short time, the small hospital began to burst at the seams in the face of the onslaught of injured patients: After six hours, even freshly operated patients had to be taken from their beds and placed on cots under quickly erected tarpaulins in the square in front of the hospital, while the earth still continued to shake. "We had to try to get people back on their feet as quickly as possible. At least we managed to protect those who were lying in the parking lot from the sun and then from the heavy rain, at least under the tarps."

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that in the city's main hospital, the Hospital Général, the entire operating room was destroyed and parts of one floor collapsed. According to Ulrike Schaller, two children miraculously survived after being thrown into the building's basement along with their beds. Reinhard Schaller, a trained vocational school teacher and master locksmith, has a logical explanation for the fact that the number of victims was not even higher, with almost 2,300 dead and 12,500 injured, given the intensity of the earthquake: "Here in Les Cayes or in the other towns in Haiti's southwest, the building density is not as extremely high as in the region around Port-au-Prince. There, during the 2010 earthquake, people didn't stand a chance of escaping their collapsing homes, especially in the poor neighbourhoods on the steep slopes that collapsed like dominoes. 

Roads look like they were cut apart with pinking shears (Source: Reinhard Schaller)

Roads look like they were cut apart with pinking shears

 

Corridors of devastation

Unlike in 2010, this time - at least in Les Cayes - the older houses built in the traditional Creole architectural style with lots of wood and timber-framed elements withstood the quake better. Nevertheless, the trails of devastation are unmistakable. Everywhere in the city, which has Haiti's third-largest port, water stood on the streets because the groundwater had been forced to the surface by the quake. There was no way to get through on the streets because people were crowding outdoors in panic. And gradually it became painfully clear what damage the quake had done to the infrastructure, roads, bridges, power and water lines and public buildings. The Port-à-Piment vocational school, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and completely rebuilt with Kindernothilfe's support, also suffered severe damage.

Particularly devastating destruction occurred in the mountainous outback of Les Cayes - along Route Nationale 7, the newly built connecting road to Jérémie. Here, landslides triggered by the earthquake swept away entire villages and buried many people. Reinhard Schaller, who explored this region on his motorcycle, tells of a pastoral group of 19 young people who had set out with their animals at 6 a.m. and of whom only two survived: "The quake has reshaped the whole landscape here; where there used to be a small river, a lake has now formed."

The power of criminal gangs

What adds to the hardship of the people in this situation is the extreme political instability in the country. On July 7, Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated by a mercenary commando in his residence. For months, suspicions had been growing that Moïse had connections to criminal gangs that now terrorize not only the poor neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince but also the residential areas of the wealthy. Meanwhile, the judiciary is also investigating interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry on suspicion of direct contacts with the masterminds of the attack. The extent of the power of the criminal gangs, which are now equipped with state-of-the-art weapons, was demonstrated by the fact that after the earthquake, several aid convoys departing from Port-au-Prince for the disaster area in the southwest of the country were intercepted and robbed. Only by air and by ship did the first relief supplies reach Les Cayes and Jérémie. Only after the police negotiated "humanitarian passes" with the gang leaders was it possible to bring medical and other supplies to the affected areas by road as well. At least one problem seems to have been spared the people so far: The number of people infected with coronavirus remain surprisingly low. Officially, there have only been 22,000 infected and 611 dead. 

Children do sports on the beach (Source: Kindernothilfe-Partner)
In the Child Friendly Spaces, girls and boys can forget the chaos around them for a few hours with sports, painting, singing and games

 

Child Friendly spaces as a ray of hope in disasters

Just a few hours after the earthquake, Kindernothilfe's Board of Directors approved 100,000 euros in emergency aid. This enabled our partners on the ground to work with the proven instrument of Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) - children's centers that combine the protection and care of children in the disaster area with educational initiatives. Such children's centers had already proven to be extremely effective tools after the 2010 earthquake as well as after Hurricane Matthew. They help children in the midst of the devastation and destruction overcome the traumatic stresses and bridge the time until work can resume in the schools.

However, the partner organizations Service Jésuite aux Migrants (SJM) and the Fédération des Ecoles Protestantes D'Haïti (FEPH) are putting their fingers in the even bigger wound: "Our emergency aid on the ground is not enough," the SJM team wrote to Duisburg, "to help Haiti and its people out of the negative spiral of the past years, structural changes are needed." The country in permanent crisis and chaos mode, needed finally social, political and economic stability. For those responsible at FEPH, it is also clear that "a change in mentality, a new way of thinking and acting are indispensable" for this. Therefore, for many years, this partner has been focusing on consciously preparing children and their families for possible disaster and risk situations, practicing survival strategies to prevent children's rights and the protection of children from violence from being swept under the rug in the moment of natural disasters and crises.