Last year a 7.0MW earthquake hit Haiti, the least economically developed country in the Western Hemisphere. In the weeks which followed it was reported that 230,000 had been killed, 300,000 had been left injured, and a further 100,000 homeless. The 12th January marks the first anniversary of the catastrophe, and while over the past year the international community and a multitude of NGOs have sought to aid the Caribbean nation, the Haitians have lurched from one tragedy to another in what must surely be one of the unluckiest corners of the earth.
This time last year, the world was confronted by a series of harrowing images in our newspapers and on our television screens, particularly of Haiti’s capital Port au Prince – lying just sixteen miles from the epicentre of the earthquake and home to 2,000,000 – summarily destroyed. One image in particular became synonymous with the desperate plight of the Haitian people – their dilapidated Presidential Palace, a shattered symbol of Haiti’s independence, keeping vigil over a broken city of dispossessed inhabitants. The rubble of Haiti’s former political centre has still not been removed – another image which may come to have resonance beyond the earthquake alone – and 1.5 million refugees remain in overcrowded displacement camps.
The international community sprang in to action – the EU as a whole donated €420m while our government sent a Royal Navy ship full of aid along with $22 million. The British public raised £101 million through the DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal, and our sentiments and feelings of compassion were made commercially manifest in a cover of R.E.M’s Everybody Hurts sung by Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis, Rod Stewart and Mariah Carrey. Hollywood also got in on the act, generating high levels of publicity comparable to events like Live Aid in the 1980s. If John Travolta personally flying a Boeing 707 to Haiti on behalf of the Church of Scientology felt like a stunt it didn’t matter, because everyone was pulling together to help a stricken people. But after this period of impressive and energetic action, slowly, and as so often happens, Haiti faded from our screens and was largely forgotten.
Since then the humanitarian effort has become paralyzed. Refugee International has condemned Haiti’s UN camps commenting: “living in squalid, overcrowded camps for a prolonged period has led to aggravated levels of violence and appalling standards of living”. Gang rape and forced prostitution are common occurrences in these camps.
More recently, a series of tragic coincidences have befallen Haiti – a series of events which seem more like a passage from the Old Testament than anything which could happen in our modern reality. In October, reports started to emerge from Haiti of outbreaks of cholera. Fears were voiced that if drinking water was contaminated in Port au Prince’s displacement camps, this could have a devastating effect. On the 9th of November these fears were realized, after deadly floods caused by hurricane Tomas helped the epidemic on its way. In one month, the cholera epidemic spread throughout the country, leaving 91,000 people infected and 2,000 dead.
This cruel conspiracy of events, however, became more poignant when it was discovered that cholera emerged in Haiti not from within, but was brought to the country by Nepalese troops acting on behalf of the UN. In mid-November anti-UN and anti-foreign demonstrations broke out in Haiti’s second city of Cap-Haïtien, as 200 protesters threw stones at hospitals and foreign doctors. Rioters exchanged shots with UN peacekeepers, leaving two Haitians killed and further hampering efforts to stem the tide of cholera.
Conditions in Haiti show little signs of abating. In fact, stasis in the relief effort has come to be reflected in a stagnation of Haiti’s political process, as presidential election results announced on the 7th of December have been met with accusation of widespread fraud. The elections used an electoral register which predated the earthquake, meaning it bore little resemblance to the now decimated population, and was easily manipulated by the deeply unpopular incumbent, the American-backed Préval. At the time of writing, the politics resulting from Haiti’s 2004 coup play out on the nation’s streets – an eventuality the UN peace keeping force was supposed to prevent.
Perhaps the only light on Haiti’s horizon is the still-to-arrive $1.5 billion in aid promised by the U.S. What effect this will have upon a nation with such prevalent and entrenched problems remains to be seen – if indeed it arrives at all.