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Limited phone cards are some people's last hope for help

Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A11

"Paté! Paté! Paté!" a woman's voice cried out, advertising fried patties for sale. She squatted on a cement brick in front of the Petionville offices of one of Haiti's biggest cellphone companies, Voilà.

It was 11 a.m., and already the line for phone cards was more than 100 people long. They waited silently, some with their heads cast down, others craning their necks to see how much farther they had to go before reaching the front office window. A handwritten sign taped to the wall advertised the three purchase options. A female security guard scanned each person with a wand before they approached the counter. The guard said she had lost her house and has nothing. She waved the wand up and down each person, then let them pass.

Since the earthquake, service among the country's three carriers -- Digicel, HaitiTel and Voilá -- has been spotty. Voilá has proven the most reliable, creating a mad scramble and healthy black markets for the phone cards.

Martha Germain, 50, has family in America. They know she is alive, but she wants to talk to them again about her collapsed house and the lack of food and water. She took in a neighbor's child, who lost her aunt in the earthquake and has no other place to go. Wearing a pink T-shirt, a blue skirt and her hair in plaits, the girl looked about 7 years old. She said she didn't know her age.

"I don't know what they can do, because my cousin is sick and can't come here, but I need money, I need food, I need somewhere to sleep," said Germain, who also has two daughters.

Rigaud Alexander set up a table outside of the building to sell phones, the bright green boxes stacked up two by two as a crowd gathered around. He said he used to sell five a day, but since the earthquake, 15 a day. Given the circumstances, he said he had actually lowered the price.

Watching the crowd around him, he said he has enough inventory to last about another hour. Then he would be back the next day with more phones.

And there will be more customers waiting to buy.

-- Theola Labbé-DeBose

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