PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Driving around the wreckage of Port-au-Prince, I keep on wondering what this city was like before – before the earthquake, that is. For every inhabitant of the Haitian capital, life will now forever be defined by before and after the January 12 quake that left probably 200,000 dead.
In parts, particularly the higher up the hills you go, it looks to have been a Caribbean copy of the best of French colonial architecture and public spaces. But now the large main squares of Pétionville, the golf course, and just about every free open area has been settled by the hundreds of thousands of homeless and their makeshift shelters.
Some are not so much homeless, but simply too traumatised to go back under a concrete roof. The rains have not come yet, but they are due by March. And then the hurricane season later in the year. This is a disaster that will probably become even more challenging to contain in the months ahead.
Which was why putting a stable, robust food distribution system in place was so important for WFP. The 16 fixed points around the capital have functioned smoothly, providing a safe haven for the women of Port-au-Prince as they collect their ration of rice. The system can also be used for distributing other humanitarian supplies.
But it will take months, if not years, for this city to recover. It’s hard to describe the scale of the destruction. In six years working for WFP in Africa, often in some of the continent’s more hostile war zones, I have never seen such devastation.
In a few seconds of infernal chaos, Port-au-Prince was shaken like a bag of old bones, to its knees. Colleagues who were here have described escaping from the office, and then listening for what seemed like an eternity to the sound of the city collapsing around them.
But the human spirit is strong, and the people of this country have a long history of fighting back even harder when the odds are set against them. Much has been made in some quarters of Haiti’s violent past, and I myself was nervous at what I would discover when I flew in a week after the quake.
We have not been threatened, however. Even in the feared slum of Cité Soleil, distributions are being completed peacefully. People are desperate for help, but the city is generally calm. There is a fierceness only in the dignity of the women who walk out of the distribution sites with their bag of rice perched on their heads. They would prefer life was not like this, that they did not have to look for hand outs.
But one month after the quake everyone here understands that the situation is bigger than all of us. The common awareness of this fact is the most powerful force for coordination and cooperation there is. It’s the only way to get the job done, and help Haiti through this most painful of times.