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Amid the Misery, Haitians Ask Why

Failed State Unable to Halt, or Respond to, Disastrous Aftermath of Storm

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page A25

GONAIVES, Haiti -- "I looked, but I can't find them," whispered Monise Alsenor, standing atop a small hill where her mud-and-sticks house once sat. Two of her seven children are missing.

She trembled, clutched her purple skirt and continued with the kind of stories that people all over this northern region of Haiti have recounted since Tropical Storm Jeanne swept through on Sept. 18.

Monise Alsenor lost two of her seven children. "The big water, it took them away," she said. "I looked wherever the water went, but I can't find them." (Photos Deneen Brown -- The Washington Post)

Some lost their children; others watched more than 20 members of their extended families swallowed by floodwaters and locked in houses that became graves. Some bodies are still hanging from trees. Other people climbed high into the branches, only to be consumed by the floodwaters. Mudslides cascaded from mountains. About 1,500 people died and 200,000 -- essentially the city's entire population -- were left homeless.

Two weeks after the storm, struggling down from the site where her little four-room house once stood, stepping in blue plastic sandals over jagged stones, Alsenor asked why, as have so many other Haitians. Why had so many people died?

The answers, according to interviews with more than 30 people, lie largely in Haiti's status as a failed state, a place with few working institutions of modern life. No one has been able to stop local people from denuding the hillsides around Gonaives, making the soil vulnerable to mudslides. Canals were allowed to silt up. The drains in Gonaives were filled with sewage and trash, local officials reported. When the floods came, the police in Gonaives fled, and no one was left to start the rescue effort.

When Alsenor heard the water coming, she began putting her precious dishes and the birth certificates of her seven children on higher shelves, thinking the waters would be just knee-deep. Suddenly her house tore open and she was swept away.

She heard her children screaming, "Aide'm! Aide'm!" -- "Save me! Save me!" in Creole. She could not reach them. She and her husband spent the night clinging to a spike tree as the muddy current pulled at them. The tree's green thorns ripped off her clothes.

In the morning, naked, she climbed down from the tree and ran where the water ran, along its path of destruction -- snapped trees, broken concrete walls and flattened houses.

"I can't find my children," she said. "The big water, it took them away. I looked wherever the water went, but I can't find them."

"Twenty thousand times, Haiti suffers. Too much misery," Joseph Meralist said as he cleaned out the Gonaives morgue, which was smeared with mud. "Till today, people are still sleeping on top of roofs. What do you call that? Misery. People can't eat. There is no water to drink. There is no unity. This is why Haiti is going through this misery. Why such misery?"

On a journey through Gonaives and surrounding villages, that question and various answers came fast and furious -- from peasants in the fields, nuns cleaning out a pharmacy, relief workers struggling to feed the hungry, gang members overseeing looting.

Foreign experts point to the government's shortcomings. "Vulnerabilities have been allowed to grow in Haiti to the extent that any natural hazard inevitably leads to great tragedy," Salvano Briceno, director of the U.N. Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said in a report on the disaster. "And yet, thinking ahead and investing in prevention will save lives and livelihoods."

Mystical Explanations

In May, a storm killed 2,665 people in Haiti, according to relief officials. Briceno attributed that tragedy and Gonaives's to a lack of early warning systems, lack of land management and massive deforestation of Haiti's mountains, which helped create the mudslides.

People here asked why so many people died in Haiti when the same storm hit with more force in the Dominican Republic, on the other half of Hispaniola island, where only 11 people were killed.

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