PORT-AU-PRINCE – More trucks and rubble removal equipment lined yesterday the collapsed National Palace than Port-au-Prince’s residents have seen on the streets of their devastated city over the past six months. The heavy machinery, nowhere to be found until a day earlier, remained parked on the lawn by the palace, just feet away from the shacks of Champs de Mars, where thousands of displaced have been living since January.
But to journalists in town for the day, the small army of trucks almost gave the illusion that this city is bustling with cleaning and reconstruction. The illusion is easily broken by driving less than a block away, through the rubble and mud that clog the streets of the downtown area, one of the worst affected by the massive earthquake that leveled much of the city and killed more than 230,000 people
In reality, the city looks little different than it did then, if not for a pervading sense of resignation and growing exasperation that seems to have settled in with the rains.
The rubble removal equipment by the shell of the palace was one of the ironies of Monday’s recurrence, an event that brought a show of celebrities to a pavilion behind the palace – just removed enough to keep the tents of Champs de Mars out of sight – and where between musical entertainment and finger foods, President Rene Preval defended his government’s response to the earthquake and handed out awards to aid workers, politicians and journalists.
Meanwhile, outside the palace, the recurrence went almost unnoticed. Wearing only a nightgown and holding her baby daughter, 28 year-old Fara Toussaint sat outside her mother’s shack, right across the palace, and looked at the parked trucks, labeled in stickers wit the Creole words “Ayiti pap peri.”
“These trucks weren’t there yesterday,” Toussaint said, looking with curiosity and voicing skepticism. “And I don’t know if they will be there tomorrow.”
Resting in one of the parked trucks, Reinaldo Vargas said that he and other Dominican workers had just driven the equipment to Haiti from the neighboring Dominican Republic a week earlier, but that so far they had not been instructed on the work to do.
“The engineers today just told us to drive the trucks here,” Vargas said, adding he did not know whether they would be removing rubble from the palace’s premises or elsewhere. “I don’t know why.”
The trucks remained empty and parked by the palace all day, just as President Preval announced to reporters and foreign visitors that the enormous and so far almost untouched task of rubble removal will cost Haiti some $ 1.5 billion.
“All this aid came in but nothing changed,” said 33 year-old Gilbert Gregory, when told that politicians and NGO representatives where commemorating the recurrence right across the camp where he stood with his three children. “Nothing has changed in six months, the government didn’t take any responsibility.”
Around him, very few seemed to notice the occasion, if not for the overnight appearance of the trucks and the food and clothes handed out by a Brazilian contingent of MINUSTAH, weeks after the last distributions ended, camp residents said.
“Today is a special day,” said 15 year-old Marie Anne Tanis, clutching a small lunch box and followed by her barefoot brothers and sisters. Tanis couldn’t explain why today of all days she received food. “I don’t think they will do that again,” she said.
Behind the palace, the self-congratulatory tone of the recurrence ceremony seemed to describe a different country.
“Viewed comparatively, I think the Haitian government and the people who are working here have done well in the last six months,” said former US President Bill Clinton. Clinton has been heading Haiti’s Interim Reconstruction Commission with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, also at the event.
After speeches describing a relief work that most Haitians seemed not to have noticed, President Preval honored special guests for their work – handing out medals to local politicians and doctors, as well as the head of the often criticized UN mission in Haiti, actor Sean Penn and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
When the latter was called to the podium, journalists at the event expressed perplexity and even outrage that a colleague would accept a prize from a government it would be his job to criticize. Footage of him rescuing a Haitian boy during a looting in January raised eyebrows and led many to question his journalistic integrity.
Perhaps less noticed, on Monday’s acceptance of the prize, even if handed symbolically to Cooper to thank all media for their coverage of Haiti, also stirred questions. Cooper told fellow reporters he does not think the award will impact his ability to be critical of the government.
But at the end of a day that many felt was a publicity stunt, doubts remained. Jonathan Katz, The Associated Press correspondent and one of two foreign journalists in Haiti when the earthquake hit, looked incredulous as Cooper took the medal.
“A medal? From the Haitian government?” Katz asked. “I cannot believe he just accepted that.”