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Haiti: returning to La Gonave

The ferryboats departing from mainland Haiti for the island of La Gonave seem to offer a temporary escape to a different reality; one where the earthquake never happened.

But then you think of the tens of thousands of Haitians who have made this trip in the last week and you again realise there is no escape, there is no other reality. In Haiti, the earthquake is everywhere.

Working together

Concern has been working in La Gonave since long before the earthquake struck. We’ve been working with the community to construct new clean water resources, distribute seeds and tools, build schools, and improve roads.

Death and damage

Miraculously, when the earthquake struck, there were no deaths on the island, but 107 Govaniens who were in Port-au-Prince at the time perished. Thousands lost friends and members of their families. 4,700 homes were damaged and 1,300 were destroyed.

I’m now accompanying the Concern team who are conducting an assessment on the island.

The unimaginable

On our way to the assessment, I sit next to Programme Manager Hugues Nevelus on the motorboat. He tells me that when the earthquake struck, he was escorting a team of engineers around the island. They felt nothing at the time. But soon his phone began to ring with frantic calls from the capital, confirming the unimaginable.

He immediately thought of his wife and two boys, ages seven and one.

Where are they?

The boys, he soon found out, were fine – with relatives. But as the hours passed he heard nothing from his wife. She was working on the seventh floor of a university building when it collapsed. He was trapped on La Gonave, as there were no boats sailing to or from the island.

The days passed. Eventually, he got a call from his relatives. His wife showed up at their front door. She had worked her way out of the rubble and walked home covered in dust.

Back again

This is Hugues' first time back to La Gonave since then. He was looking remarkably fresh for a guy who'd spent the last two nights sleeping in a car. This has been a recurring source of amazement for me. Despite losing almost everything, most of the staff were showing up for work within the first week.

And this is perhaps relatively trivial, but I think also deeply symbolic: they were all arriving sharply dressed. This is despite the fact that many spent the night under the stars or in a tent, commuting great distances.

Business as usual?

And it's not just our staff. Every morning we pass dozens of women and men, dressed in what we might call “business casual”, walking intently downtown. If there are jobs to be had, they are going to find them. This is one untold story. Yes, there are incalculable victims here, but donors and television audiences and recovery planners should be told: the people of Haiti want to go to work, now.