PUERTO PRÍNCIPE, October 31 (by Juan Haro, UNICEF photojournalist) –
The door to Mélienne Dessir’s house hardly closes. The entire back of the building plunged into the sea on the day of the Pestel earthquake in southwest Haiti.
That morning, August 14, this 24-year-old woman and mother of three got up early to go to the market to buy groceries. Twenty minutes after leaving the house, time suddenly stopped. The floor opened under the market stalls. The foundations of the police station, health center and city school crumbled. The seaside houses were hit by the waves.
Scared neighbors tried to save their lives by escaping their homes and running onto the highway. An old ghost has wreaked havoc in Haiti again. Another earthquake. Another nightmare.
18-month-old Celine was playing with her 5-year-old brother Richardson and 8-year-old sister Cynthia when the front of her house collapsed on her. His heart immediately stopped beating. Dessir ran home as fast as he could, fear gripping his heart.
“When I arrived …” She held her breath and clenched her teeth to hold back the tears. “When I got home, our neighbor gave me Celine’s body. I passed out when I realized I wasn’t dreaming … I had lost her.”
Nobody lives on the main street of Pestel, a beautiful fishing village on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, where football was played on the pitch in the afternoons, fish was sold in the harbor and the sunset was reflected in the green mountains. Now the streets are empty. On every corner there are only broken houses, personal belongings and rubble.
At least 2,200 people died in the 7.2 magnitude earthquake. More than 12,000 were injured. An estimated 1.2 million people, including 540,000 children, were affected; more than 50,000 houses were destroyed.
The loss of her daughter and her home shocked Dessir, as if nothing and no one could take a pain that only a mother could understand. She is strong and brave and hides her tears from others’ eyes. But he cannot hide the wounds in him.
Cynthia was also injured on the day of the earthquake. With little time to cope with the death of her baby, Dessir ran to the nearest medical center for help. But there was no center, just a pile of rubble. In the days that followed, mobile clinics were set up near the nearest hotel, in which many families are now sleeping on the floor, including Dessir and her son.
Now Dessir has to muster the strength to occasionally take the ship that brings her closer to her surviving daughter, Cynthia. The little girl is recovering from her injuries at the house of a friend of her father’s in Zétroit, a town 20 minutes from Pestel, across the bay.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but a few days after the earthquake, my husband and I decided that the best thing for Cynthia would be to rest in a quiet place. With the aftershocks of the following days and no roof to sleep on, “She couldn’t stay with me,” says Dessir. “It’s hard not to see her that often.” On every trip through the bay, food and water are brought along because there is no drinking water in the city.
“I feel sad to think that I’ll never see my little sister again,” says Cynthia. “Everything happened very quickly”. The day he lost his sister, his life was turned upside down and she suffered injuries to her back and shoulders. Without professional care, he slowly recovers because there is no health center near Zétroit. His mother’s visit brings him a shy smile back, but the signs of his pain are visible.
The scars on your back will be a lasting reminder of scenes that no child should see. “Children affected by the earthquake are exposed to post-traumatic stress problems that can affect their cognitive and social development,” explains Jean Stenio, head of the UNICEF office in Los Cayos. “This can lead to depression, sadness, less activity, poor school performance, and thinking and remembering about the disaster. Your mental health is our priority.”
To help affected families, UNICEF is on site and offers emergency aid such as psychological support or access to hygiene kits and clean water. It is also working with the authorities to rebuild schools and relearn students despite logistical and safety difficulties in the country.
“I hope we can meet soon,” says Pascal, Dessir’s husband. “I miss you when you leave. These are not easy days, I assure you. ”It was he who brought his daughter to the village after the first medical help in the mobile clinic. Before the earthquake, Pascal worked as a worker between Pestel and Zétroit. He tries to keep his morale high and struggles to move on with his family.
Despite her injuries, Cynthia can’t resist getting out of bed and escorting her mother and brother to the port. He watches as they leave the boat without knowing when he will see them again. After the earthquake, many families have found it difficult to be separated from their loved ones without any means of communication or transportation.
Back in Pestel everything stays the same: the ground torn open by the earthquake, the fishing boats moored in the shallow water. Dessir wasn’t on the way to the cemetery much as she was clutching her son tightly.
“We buried her on the same day as the earthquake. After the funeral, the reality of the events became clear. We had neither time nor money to build a grave. We buried her underground. This is where my little girl sleeps forever.” “Says Dessir.
Richardson is watching the scene without really understanding what they are doing there. Celine is buried under a small mound in the Pestel cemetery. It’s not the only one with the same date of death. “I asked God: Why me? Why always us? Why my daughter?”, Dessir complains. “But in spite of everything I will find the strength to continue. Because I have two wonderful children who need me strongly. And that gives me courage.”
At UNICEF we also have thousands of children affected by the earthquake, especially around 540,000 who also need us and whom we will not abandon. Two and a half months later – in the midst of a permanent political, economic and social crisis – we work tirelessly to meet their immediate needs and offer them protection.