HAITI

A child is gone; pain lives on

 

jcharles@MiamiHerald.com

(This story was originally published November 3, 2008.)

CABARET, Haiti -- His face, that of a grief-stricken father holding his lifeless baby girl, became the symbol of Hurricane Ike in Haiti.

But in the weeks after Frantz Samedi became that unwilling symbol of his country's suffering, little has improved in his life. He still has no food, no money, no hope.

Surrounded by a maze of hurricane-damaged concrete houses, he recalls the convoy of trucks driving through this tiny town loaded with bags of rice, piles of mattresses and bales of used clothing. None stopped at his front door.

In the aftermath of the destruction, the community remains divided.

"It's every man for himself, " said Samedi, 40. "You would think if they are going to distribute aid, they would give it to the true victims of the tragedy. They would go house to house and say, 'Here, here.' "

For Samedi, an unemployed mechanic, Sept. 7, 2008, will forever be remembered as the day the floodwaters raged. That day, he and others in this coastal town just north of Port-au-Prince awoke to nature's fury as two rivers overflowed, swallowing houses and destroying lives.

Among the dead was 5-year-old Tamasha "Tama" Jean. Samedi, who has two teenage daughters of his own, had raised Tamasha almost since she was born. She was his cousin's daughter, and for Samedi a bright spot in an otherwise dark existence.

"Every time she would see me, she would say, 'Papa, give me some money.' When I would ask what she wants it for, she would say, 'So I can put it in my box, ' " Samedi said, as the memory brought a rare smile across his now younger-looking but still grieving face.

"She would always say, 'I have two fathers: -- the father who made me, and my adoptive father' -- me. I loved her a lot, and I will never find a child like her again."

Ike was the second hurricane and fourth storm to batter Haiti in less than 30 days when it brushed the environmentally fragile country in September. And while Cabaret was not the hardest hit, it suffered the second highest number of casualties, 71. More than a third of the victims were children.

In Guitton, a hard-hit section of Cabaret and the neighborhood where Samedi was born and still lives, reminders of the devastation are everywhere. Some are as overt as the four-foot-high, light-brown water marks on unfinished concrete houses.

Others are as inconspicuous as Neva Samedi, Frantz Samedi's cousin and Tamasha's mother. Still feeling the loss, she hasn't lived in the family house since the tragedy, and the sight of children in their school uniforms causes her to break down.

Inside the house, where the girl spent her last hours, the floor is soiled in mud, and family portraits of her have all been destroyed by the floodwaters.

NORMALCY IS ELUSIVE

Other residents, such as Dival Joseph, say they are desperate for some measure of normalcy. But that seems impossible without money to buy food, clear farms or rebuild more than 1,200 homes.

Last week, after local media reports criticized a tent city for homeless families at the entrance to the town as inadequate, the Interior Ministry shut the temporary shelter and sent families packing, giving each $50.

Cabaret Mayor Joseph Wils Thomas acknowledged that the money isn't enough to help families rent a place or rebuild their homes, but he said he understands the government's limitations. Food and other aid have come to Cabaret, he said, but haven't been nearly enough.

Thomas denied a claim by Samedi and other residents that he has played favorites with the donations, saying that "there has been a lot of intervention in Guitton."

"There are some people here who would rather go hungry than to come to the office to ask for help, " said Thomas, who was there when Samedi discovered Tamasha's body and sponged her clean with purified water.

"We have more than 30,000 people in Cabaret who are victims of the storm, but we didn't find 1,000 mattresses, " Thomas said. No one has given even a sack of cement. There are areas where we intervened, and areas where we weren't able to."

A COMMON GRAVE

Thomas noted that three weeks after the tragedy, the Haitian government buried 27 of the storm victims, including Tamasha, placing 21 of the bodies in a common grave. Tamasha was buried in a family plot, alongside Samedi's father and an aunt.

Thomas said that each family was given $50 after the tragedy, and that his office helped Neva Samedi, Tamasha's mother, by giving her some of the donated food. Frantz Samedi said that was not enough.

"In what way did they help her?" Samedi said. "She lost her child. Two, three cups of rice is doing something? She lost everything. They could have taken that into consideration."

Even as Samedi acknowledged that the government-provided funerals lifted an economic burden for families, he lamented the way arrangements were handled. By the time the burials took place, families were barely able to say goodbye properly because the bodies were beginning to decay for lack of a freezer in the morgue.

"I wasn't given a chance to do what I wanted to do for my child, " Samedi said. "I would have given her a beautiful funeral. They didn't give us the chance at all. We asked and they told us, 'No, the mayor has to bury them.' "

Samedi struggles with emotions that shift from grief to anger. "I am leaving it all to God, " he said, insisting that he is not angry.

But, singling out one of his neighbors, an older, graying woman, he complained on her behalf: "She can't even afford a front door, much less a mattress. She's sleeping at people's houses. There are people here with a lot, a lot, of problems."

Samedi has been wearing the same outfit for a week, washing and rewearing it. But quieting the hunger pangs or replacing his lost possessions is not what he aches for. It's Tamasha.

"She was a happy child. She could write her name and count, " he said, another smile brightening his sad face. "She could count to 100. She had smarts."

But the sweet memory lasts only a few seconds before it is interrupted by the recollection of the rising floodwaters from the deadly storm and the lifeless body of his little girl sprawled on the sidewalk, alongside 11 others.

On that day, Samedi had searched for her all over town for two hours.Part of him wishes he had never found her.

"Had I not found her, I don't think I would be grieving so, " he said. "There is a big difference between when you don't see something and when you do. When I saw her lying on the ground, her eyes closed, mouth opened, that hurt. It really, really hurt."

Read more Haiti, After the Storms stories from the Miami Herald

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