Monday, July 6, 2009

Gonaives, a Destroyed and Abandoned City

by Wadner Pierre -
All photos by Wadner Pierre

Gonaives is a port city with an estimated population of 200,000. It is the sixth largest city in Haiti and is located approximately 110 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. In 2003, it was one of first places to come under the control of armed rebels who helped oust Haiti's democratic government on February 29, 2004. The coup was actually completed by foreign powers - primarily France, Canada and the US. Months after the coup, in September of 2004, Gonaives was hit by Hurricane Jeanne. Three thousand lives were lost. In 2008, with the damage done by Jeanne still unrepaired, fierce storms (Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna) battered Gonaives yet again. At least 500 were killed, over a hundred thousand made homeless. An astounding 800,000 were victimized by the storms if crop destruction and drinking water contamination are considered.

On my way to Gonaives

It was just after mid day on June 19th, two days prior to another round of senatorial elections boycotted by most Haitians, when my bus left Port-au-Prince with 70 other passengers. Before 2004, it would have taken about 2 hours to reach the city. Now it takes almost 5 hours. The so-called good part of the road is from Port-au-Prince to Montrouis in the northern part of the capital, also the last part of West department. Travelers are usually talkative in Haiti. They often discuss religion or political, economic and social issues. On this trip, they would talk mainly about the destruction visible everywhere in Gonaives. They complained about the state of the road and blamed political leaders in the Artibonite department and at the national level for the lack of reconstruction.

Mrs. Guerda, a nurse who teaches at a private vocational school, chatted with Frantz (who also works in the health care field) about the diseases and psychological trauma she witnessed among victims of the storms. Frantz asked Guerda for advice on how to help a friend's son who is plagued with psychological problems following the storm. Unfortunately, Guerda could only tell him that such problems are extremely common among victims.

Guerda tells me that many from Gonaives have moved to nearby cities such as Saint Marc, Cap-Haitian, and very often Port-au-Prince. She explains the General Hospital in Gonaives, La Providence, no longer exists. Its operations have been transferred north to a warehouse once used by the humanitarian group CARE. It was renamed “Hopital de Secours” (Help Hospital). She assured me that I would not recognize the city. The water and filth are everywhere she says, and it creates a fertile environment for mosquitoes, which spread disease. Her children have abandoned the city but, despite her pessimism, she cannot leave the city where she made her life and established her career.

Yves, who earns a living by using his motorcycle as a taxi, said that there is no hope for Gonaives. He will not leave and is resigned to living there in poverty. He will not vote in the upcoming elections because he feels that they are irrelevant to his life.


Unfortunately, Gonaives turned out to be just as Guerda described.

Upon entering the city I was overwhelmed by images of filth and destruction, of people wading through or leaping around puddles of water. For some reason, an image that lingers in my mind is one I witnessed in front of the police station. A man on a motorcycle struggled to drag a few sheep through the mud. The most galling images were of UN vehicles that quite uselessly patrolled the wreckage of Gonaives.

The city is below sea level. The area surrounding it is so deforested that the city has no natural protection from heavy rains.

Most people I talked to believe that reconstruction funds have simply been pocketed by corrupt officials. It is easy to see why given the meagre evidence of reconstruction. The Preval government recently established a state company (the CNE) to supplement the rebuilding efforts of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and Communication (MTPTC). The CNE, run by a close friend of Preval's, Jude Celestin, has made no obvious impact in the months that it has been operating - much like the countless foreign NGOs who have hovered around Gonaives for years.

In 2005, the Latortue dictatorship, flush with foreign funds that poured in after it seized power, initiated construction of a bridge a few kilometers south of the city that was to suppose to facilitate transportation. Latortue boasted that it would be the largest bridge in the Caribbean. It was never finished or used. The storms of 2008 destroyed it.

Most of the farmers near Gonaives have lost all hope. Their sons and daughter have often fled to the Bahamas to find work. They will be exploited, of course, since they will be illegal immigrants, but the lucky ones will at least survive the journey.

One farmer I talked to had sent his son, Santo, to Nassau. They spent $2000 to get him there - the family's life savings. They had spoken to Santo by phone recently. He confirmed that life is certainly tough for illegal immigrants, but at least he is there.


On the bus trip back to Port-au-Prince I chatted with a gentle 23 year old man named Rodrigue. He fled Gonaives in 2008 and now works in an iron shop in Port-au-Prince. His father still lives in Gonaives and is very ill. Rodrigue had only returned to Gonaives to check on him for three days. Rodrigue's job allows him to pay his high school tuition and take care of his father. He still has not finished high school and will have to quit this year to replenish his funds. "Next year, God willing, I will be able to enroll in night school."

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