Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two Separate Cities

Nearly three weeks after the Jan 12th earthquake, Port-au-Prince has become two separate cities. In one, the bustle of daily life slowly resumes. In the other, an endless swath of rubble, partially collapsed buildings, with roofs awkwardly canted, remains frozen in the moment of Haiti’s worst nightmare. It is dead.

In the living Port-au-Prince, petty traders have returned to the streets, selling just about everything from sugar cane to cell phone batteries. In the morning freshness, before the heat sets in, women carry buckets filled with the day’s supply of water on their heads back to makeshift shelters that have sprung up on sidewalks, in parks, football fields and other once-open spaces in the city. Men carry wooden poles, doors, and slabs of corrugated metal rescued from the rubble to build new, temporary homes.

At the main university hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince where International Medical Corps doctors and nurses tend the injured each day and the seven mobile clinics in outlying areas where we also work, earthquake-related wound care is now mixed with the complaints of everyday medicine. Patients awaiting aftercare of earthquake-related wounds wait patiently next to headache sufferers.

Rubble has been cleared from most of the streets, traffic moves—or doesn’t. The influx of international aid groups, United Nations agencies and a small army of media have only added to a gridlock in central Port-au-Prince that was notorious before the earthquake. As darkness falls, the streets narrow further as city residents use white cinder blocks and chunks of concrete rubble to carve out their sleeping spots for the night.

And all around them the dead city of Port-au-Prince remains. Schools, hospitals, office-buildings, hotels and endless private homes squat lifeless and quiet--flattened into a fraction of their former size. That many are mass graves only magnifies their stillness.

Sometimes the two cities meet. Sunday morning two housewives living in a tent camp across from the collapsed Presidential palace found a practical use for iron rods from the fence that once protected the palace: the iron rods now serve as a clothesline.

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