Hunger and Despair on the Streets of Haiti

Ancelot Jean didn't have much before the earthquake: a concrete house in a slum with a carpentry shop out back.

Now he has almost nothing. He lives with his wife, six children — and thousands of other families — in the Haitian capital's central plaza, the Champs de Mars. They cook meals on the sidewalk and hang clothes to dry on the gates of the crumbled presidential palace. Their only shade comes from a green umbrella.

"This is our home now," says his wife, Roselaine Dolce.

The family sleeps side by side for protection from thieves, among tents mostly populated by their homeless neighbors from the neighborhood known as Marche Solomon, a few blocks west.

Their Thursday began with first light around 6 a.m. in a sprawling plaza dotted with statues of Haiti's revolutionary heroes, by far the widest and one of the only open spaces in the severely overpopulated capital.


Roselaine's son from a previous marriage, 22-year-old Michel Lafleur, popped up from his cardboard mat and crossed the street to buy a cup of coffee for 5 gourdes — about 13 cents. Jean would have liked a cup as well, but there wasn't money for two, so he just washed his face and said his morning prayers.

In fact, that morning cup of joe would be the last thing anyone consumed by afternoon.

Miraculously, all the children survived: Besides Michel, there were Roselaine's adopted daughter, 16-year-old Cresna, and Jean's children Jonathan, 14, and Clairemai, 11. The couple was also caring for 11-year-old Francia and 15-year-old Jenny, the orphaned children of Dolce's sister, who was killed with her husband when their house collapsed during a prayer meeting on the horrible afternoon of Jan. 12.

"Only God can give what happened a name. But sometimes we call it 'the big truck that went by,"' Jean says. "The big truck of death."

With no breakfast to be had, Dolce set about starting her wash for the day, in a plastic bucket filled with soap and water drawn from a fetid fountain nearby that was polluted with human waste. Most of the kids had only the clothes they were wearing when the earthquake struck.

For everyone else, there was not much to do but gossip and gawk. There was plenty to see. Some aftershocks hit, and bits of loose brick would fall off the smashed Haitian Army barracks, disused since exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the force in the 1990s.

"Jesus, Jesus," Dolce whispered each time the ground shook, closing her eyes and raising her palms.

To the left, U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were setting up a checkpoint to clear a route to the nearby General Hospital, and young men gathered by their armored Humvees in case the Americans decided to hand out something.

To the right, sleek gray U.S. Navy helicopters took off and landed from the lawn of the collapsed presidential palace as hundreds pressed against the green gates to look on.

Jean and Dolce would be happy to work, but they lost all their equipment and appliances in the quake.

She used to sell vegetable juice for $1.25 a blender-full near the corner of Massillon Coicou and T. Brutus streets, not a great spot since the nearby medical school was the scene of constant rock and tear gas clashes between students and U.N. peacekeepers last year, but a decent business nonetheless. Her table and blender were destroyed when a wall fell on them during the quake.

As for Jean, he managed to salvage only a saw and sander from his workshop when the walls came down. That he made it out alive from the concrete warren where his broken five-room house sat is incredible enough, climbing out as buildings fell on friends around him.

He'd been putting the finishing touches on a cupboard he was going to sell for $320 when the quake struck. He lost the $143 in materials, plus the time he'd put in so far. For a family that is among the 50 percent of Haitians who get by on just $1 a day, that meant financial ruin.

Ladies in a blue-tarp tent nearby were cooking beans and vegetables for about $1.50, but that was far too much for the family budget. Jean waited instead for a carpenter friend to come by with a little cash, which he hoped would buy a can of rice, some salt fish, oil and a bouillon cube for Dolce to cook that evening.

As for the people in the nearby commercial district who were breaking into fallen stores to scramble for food, Jean wants nothing to do with that.

"I don't take part in those things. It's only God who can judge what they are doing, but I would not go down that road," he says.

His stepson Michel used to jog on the Champs de Mars, but now it's too crowded with tents to exercise. His school, where he was studying computers, was destroyed and he doesn't think he speaks enough English to join the sudden rush for jobs with the soldiers and even more omnipresent foreign news crews. So he wanders around and gets a shoe shine.

Sixteen-year-old Cresna goes to her cousins' tent a short walk away to get the news on what's happened during and since the earthquake. She also likes reciting psalms. The others mill about, taking advantage of the hot, slow tranquility of day before the darkness and suspicion of the night.

Nobody likes living here. It's hot and it smells bad, the ground is hard and the helicopters are loud. But nobody seems to even be thinking about heading back to their houses, if they even still exist, and Jean doesn't want to go back to the street where they spent that first sleepless night either. Too cramped for eight.

"I think there could be another catastrophe. A lot of buildings are tilted and could fall any time," says Jean-Brice Astrel, a radio journalist whose station, 91.3 Tropic FM, was wiped out along with its administrative director in the quake. He sent his kids to the countryside and sleeps on a sheet in the plaza as well, collecting tidbits for stories he can't broadcast.

The U.S. and French governments plan to bring in food, latrines and tents for 600 families by next week, but with thousands of displaced families living here, those will only go so far. The Haitian government plans to relocate 400,000 now living in city camps to temporary housing on the outskirts of the capital, Fritz Longchamp, chief of staff to President Rene Preval, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

"The Champ de Mars is no place for 1,000 or 10,000 people," Longchamp said. "They are going to be going to places where they will have at least some adequate facilities."

On Thursday, a local water truck pulled up and everyone ran to catch the plastic packets of water being chucked out for free. A U.S. soldier across the street put a big gun atop his Humvee and strapped on his helmet, eyeing the gathering crowd, but nothing happened and he sat back down.

The sun peaked high in the sky and the ground rumbled a bit.

"Jesus, Jesus," Dolce says. Her children surround her, and the family rests together on a low wall.

"I want everyone to be courageous. This is something we have never gone through before, but we'd better get used to it," she says as another helicopter shakes the trees. "We are going to be here for a while."