The fragility of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, was all too clear. The earth convulsed and down tumbled the weak homes, schools and hospitals. More than 230,000 people were killed by the earthquake and over three million affected, in the slum-plagued capital, Port-au-Prince, nearby towns like Jacmel and Léogâne and elsewhere. The 12 January brought one of the biggest disasters in recent times to the people of Haiti.
Caritas’s long-term presence meant it could respond to the emergency right away. Caritas Haiti has a strong national network, with 10 offices in dioceses across the country. Other Caritas members like Catholic Relief Services from the USA and Caritas Switzerland are well established in Haiti. Just across the border, Caritas Dominican Republic helped quickly set up an emergency relief pipeline.
Near neighbour Caritas Mexico immediately sent three nuns who were qualified nurses and a search and rescue team who pulled survivors from the rubble. When Enu Zizi was dug out alive a week after the quake, she whispered “Je t’aime – I love you” to those who lifted her from the rubble.
In a moving show of spreading solidarity, the largest ever number of Caritas members, 63 in total, answered the call for funding and technical support. From small to large, they gave generously. Following a visit to Haiti soon after the earthquake, Caritas Latin America and Caribbean Regional President, Bishop Fernando Bargalló asked, “How can we as fellow regional members bring help for the difficult journey ahead for Haitians and for Caritas Haiti? ”One answer was to provide funds and support, which 15 Caritas members in the region did, to stand together to allay the “acute pain and profound compassion in Christ ”which Bishop Bargalló said he saw in the tremendous distress and damage.
Within three months, Caritas had reached more than 1.5 million survivors with plastic sheeting, food, clean water and medical help. Suxe Bienvenue and her son had slept out in the open for eight days until Caritas Italy gave her a tarpaulin to set up home in Léogâne’s main square. Suxe had lost everything and had little to eat or drink. “I keep whatever water I have and only drink a little before going to bed,” she said.
It was extremely difficult to help everyone at once. Humanitarian agencies faced one of the largest and most complex emergencies they had ever been tested by. Fewer than 30 percent of Haitians had had access to healthcare before the earthquake and a mere 17 percent had some sanitation. Experienced emergency responders were shocked by how difficult it was to help the overwhelming number of people affected.
“Even with 10 years of emergency experience as a doctor, I found it particularly hard to identify those in greatest need in the first few weeks…so many people had very, very big needs,” said Dr Joost Butenop from Caritas Germany.
Haitians kept faith. “In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Haitian people showed a great capacity for resilience and resistance,” said Bishop Pierre Dumas, the President of Caritas Haiti. “We also saw the resurgence of values, like solidarity, which we thought had long gone. Haitians have shown that in a difficult situation, faced with suffering, you mustn’t give up. You must stand up and strive together.”
With 90 percent of Port-au-Prince’s schools destroyed and two million children left with nowhere to go, Caritas responded to an appeal by the Haitian government to prioritise education. Caritas Canada (Development and Peace) supported religious communities which ran schools, providing funds for hot meals, materials and teachers’ salaries.
Irish Caritas member Trócaire set up safe places for children to play in the tented camps which sprung up, encouraging learning and therapies which helped them overcome their traumatic experiences. At the Marie-Esther and Saint-Antoine schools in Portau- Prince, 1,270 girls were helped out of stress-filled homes and back into school: a proven and practical way of helping children return to some form of normality. Ninth-grader Beverley Milford said, “It is truly important for us to have a meal here, as many of our parents are having difficulty finding food to feed their children.”