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The earthquake in Haiti can't destroy the Village of God's spirit of survival

Haitians pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after a devastating earthquake hit the impoverished nation on Jan. 12.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

Earthly spasms could not undo the Village of God. ¶ The pitching and convulsing of the Jan. 12 earthquake dismantled shacks and stole lives, young and old, in this divinely named neighborhood, a landscape of wreckage like so many in this addled city. But the essence of the place, the warp and woof of its street life, refused to crumble. Instead, the neighborhood stoically reassembled itself -- piece by piece, person by person -- on a soccer field down the street. ¶ A village reborn at midfield. ¶ There, by the northeast goal with its tattered net, the barber -- a lanky, taciturn man named Archille Pierre Andre -- cuts hair and tames beards as he did before the magnitude-7 quake made "the village hot . . . too dangerous to stay." His electric razor draws power from a rust-colored Trojan six-volt golf-cart battery. His power source is similar to the ones he tapped during the chronic electrical outages this city endured, even before tectonic plates lurched roughly eight miles below the ground along the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault. ¶ By the southwest penalty box, Fifi Charles, a 35-year-old mother of four, mashes eggplant under a scraggly, leaf-stripped tree where sidewalk food stands sprout in a fog of charcoal smoke; Edwich Michel, a 40-year-old woman with delicate features and a reserved manner, lays out carrots for sale in a parking lot turned vegetable market. ¶ Their flimsy houses are replaced, in the reconstituted community, by flimsy tents, conjured from stained bedsheets and scavenged broom handles. They stretch out, these makeshift dwellings, from one end of the field to the other, packed tight against each other, describing a quilt of fabric roofs. An almost continuous dormitory under refracted light, filled with families resigned to a new kind of life.

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Already a disaster

In the first weeks after the quake, they adapt quickly to post-disaster miseries that resemble their pre-earthquake miseries. Before the quake, these men and women lived in a place where water would regularly stop flowing into their cinder-block shacks. A functioning toilet was a rare luxury; a hot shower was a treat. Electrical power abandoned them for days or weeks, without warning or explanation.

Before first light in the new Village of God, hungry dogs howl and hungry babies cry. Skillets clatter, vendors argue. The preacher lady, a village fixture before and after the quake, slaloms through the narrow pathways between the suspended bedsheets, calling out in praise and prayer to figures in soiled cocoons of cloth.

"There's nobody who can do anything for you if you're not a God-fearing person; only Jesus!" she screams, her voice raw and scratchy. Nerrette Jislen's lacy red dress jiggles with each exclamation-punctuated line. She throws her arms at the heavens, slaps at a worn Bible.

She trudges heavily past a toppled wall. A child, no more than 3 years old, squats there, his pants around his ankles. This wall is a latrine now. Human waste pocks the broken blocks; flies swarm. The stench is dizzying.

This wall was once a barrier that meant something here. It defined a social divide. Inside the wall was an expensive school, Quisqueya, one of Haiti's finest. Archille Pierre Andre, the barber, could never afford to send his children behind the wall; but he was attuned to what went on there. When he walked past, he could hear the soccer games he could not see.

Even in the wall's final moments, it exacted one last indignity: When it toppled, it killed. The bodies of several people trapped under the fallen blocks never got a proper burial, Andre says. He and a few other men burned the corpses in a pyre; they did not expect anyone to collect them.

At Andre's feet lies a splintered two-foot-long board, painted purple and rigged with half a dozen power plugs. Before the quake, the handmade power strip kept "me in business because the power was not on very much," says Andre, a 37-year-old with dark eyes and a long face who wears a "Jimmy Buffett Bama Breeze Tour 2007" T-shirt. Haiti is where T-shirts and hats from the United States find new life.

A few steps away, boys kick an un-inflated soccer ball at the goal. Razor wire corrals the bleachers, forming a border between the new village and the small field hospital set up inside the school. Along the southeast sideline, half a dozen men and women soap themselves in a gutter that also serves as a latrine. In the new Village of God, the bath and the toilet are one. When the World Health Organization warns about the risk of disease outbreaks -- diarrhea, cholera and others -- it's talking about places like this village. Even before the quake, Haiti had the highest infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere, mostly as a result of waterborne diseases such as chronic diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis. More than 2 million Haitians -- two out of nine -- lacked access to clean water before the quake, and five out of nine did not have adequate sanitation, according to the World Water Council.

A toy out of trash

By the latrine, Wilgy Pierre -- a bright-eyed 7-year-old chatterbox -- races across the concrete. Like the adults, he improvises. He's made a toy car out of a 16-ounce plastic Tampico Caribbean Punch bottle, with bottle caps for wheels, straws as axles and pebbles for ballast. He calls it "le machine." He fished the pieces from a garbage pile.

"Come on!" he calls to a friend, "I'm going to my friend's house."


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