By: Ben Edwards
If you read a newspaper, surfed the internet or watched TV on Wednesday, you know the heart-wrenching state of Haiti one year after the earthquake. For many, the milestone was a benchmark to measure progress toward earthquake recovery – to report the amount of rubble moved and shelters constructed. But, for those who lost loved ones in the earthquake, rubble figures and shelter facts seemed far from their minds.
In the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood of Port-au-Prince,more than a thousand Haitians squeezed into a street corner wearing white to commemorate those who died in the earthquake. Small children grasping heavy blocks of rubble to use as seats wobbled toward the gathering.
From a small stage, a religious leader addressed his community, several of whom clutched tattered photos of loved ones. He called for a moment of silence at 4:53 p.m., muting whispers and shuffling feet. Seconds later, a wail erupted from a young girl, tearing through the silence.
“Mama…Mama,” she cried.
A lump grew in my throat. Heads turned to pinpoint the source, which we never found. It didn’t matter; her burden was shared by all in attendance.
The crowd began to sing, “How Great Thou Art,” and washed away the sound of weeping. The music rolled up an adjacent hillside where a group of locals were planting trees – orange, mango, coconut and others — to signify the community’s rebirth.
“Today is a day to remember my friends, and it’s a day to think about a new future,” said a worker.
The 60 trees planted on Wednesday were a small sample of a much larger USAID project to recognize the lives lost in the earthquake by planting 300,000 trees in Parc la Visite National Parc. Forests cover less than two-percent of Haiti, and the new tress will help restore part of a watershed that descends toward Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.
The 60 trees planted on the hillside in Carrefour Feuilles overlook a new school that was rebuilt in the past year. The school is a sign of progress, but skewed buildings and pockets of rubble are lingering reminders that Carrefour Feuilles was hit particularly hard by the earthquake. To make matters worse, neighborhoods that suffer the greatest human loss and infrastructure damage tend to attract criminal activity.
After the earthquake, USAID helped keep Carrefour Feuilles from falling into this trap by employing residents to rebuild their neighborhood. Temporary employment brought relative calm to the community, but stability remains tenuous. The tree planting that took place on Wednesday was part of USAID’s temporary employment program.
While most of the workers on the hillside seemed happy to talk about trees, they offered less about hopes for their country’s future. One man, however, was eager to talk reconstruction.
“(International) aid built shelters, helped with rubble and with cholera,” said Maxime.
He then offered a wish-list for progress, citing education reform and governance as key issues. The timely gut-check highlighted the staggering challenges that lie ahead and the years it will take to overcome them.
As the sun dipped below the surrounding mountains and the sky turned orange, Maxime reconciled my ambivalence about what they’ve accomplished and what remains.
“As long as I am alive, I have hope.”