Trying to find meaning in a neighbourhood tragedy

David Gutnick on a neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince that foreign aid forgot.
A young girls carries a bucket of water in Port-au-Prince. In some neighbourhoods, like La Mangeoire, there has been no aid or medical help even two weeks after the big quake. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

These days, Frantz Darguin drives through the rubble-filled streets of Port-au-Prince in his rusty taxi, trying to make enough money to feed his two-year-old daughter.

Frantz has not worked much since the earthquake struck. He cannot.

The problem is not the demolished streets. It is what is happening inside his head.

Frantz spends most of the day in a daze, unable to come to terms with how his life has been shattered in La Mangeoire — the manger — the neighbourhood he has lived in his entire life.

"It come down, down, down," he says, retelling the tale. "It killed my mother and my sister. I could not do anything; you know what I am saying? So now I am just here."

La Mangeoire is hidden away from the main streets of Port-au-Prince.

To get in you go through a rusty gate on a crooked wall that could fall at anytime.

Because of its small size, La Mangeoire is a very tight-knit community in the vast chaos that is Port-au-Prince.

Seven or eight hundred people live there, street-food vendors, trades people and drivers like Frantz. 

There were one hundred homes. Ninety-six of them are now gone.

Deep wounds

So far — it has been two weeks now since the earthquake struck — no international aid workers, no water trucks, no engineers, no bulldozer have visited La Mangeoire.  

Recyclers search the rubble for useful materials in Port-au-Prince. Haiti needs at least 10 years of reconstruction, experts said this week. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Step through the neighbourhood gate and you are in a world of walking wounded where the emotional trauma is everywhere to be seen.

A neighbourhood the size of football staidium is now covered in heaps of broken, grey cement blocks and crushed tin.

A steep hill of homes now looks like it was smashed with a giant fist.

Residents now live on top of the rubble, salvaging what they can: mattresses, pieces of wood and tin.

They spend their time mostly under plastic tarps and pieces of cardboard.

There are no Red Cross tents here, no Doctors Without Borders workers, no UN troops, and no distribution of water bottles or medical supplies.  

Anicile St.-Hillaire has lived in La Mangeoire for 30 years and tells me she feels completely abandoned.

"Nobody has come to check if we had any food. Our babies might be sick because we have little water, and there was no medical support."

She points up the hill.

"One woman is still stuck in the house right up there that's completely fallen down. This is part of a wall that we see here, and now she's just pushing the rocks away so we can walk by.

"It's just a big pile of rubble, that's all it is."


Madame St.-Hilaire wanted a visitor to meet the children. The local school is smashed; hundreds of children now spend their days together sitting under plastic tarps to protect them from the sun.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. Over the past 20 years. he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. In summer 2008, he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

There is no television, no radio, no books, no toys, no music.

Nolan sits under a tarp staring at her hands.

She is 17, in her last year of high school, with plans to go to university.

But all her books are now buried so she has nothing to read to occupy her mind.

She says she feels completely lost, that something has gone missing inside her head.

She says it is like her imagination is gone.

Nolan looks at the children lying on the mattresses around her and says she's worried for all the little ones.

"Children should not be smelling dead people," she says.

Healing inside

The medical emergency in Haiti is shifting. Broken bones, cuts and bruises are healing. People with canes and crutches walk the streets.

'Children should not be smelling dead people.' As the days go by in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of La Mangeoire. (David Gutnick/CBC)

But the invisible wounds, the mental trauma may last for generations.

To make sense of what happened, to give this tragedy a meaning so that the people in neighbourhoods like La Mangeoire can deal with the trauma is going to be a daunting, complex task.

Julien and Emilio Eliziane are brothers in their mid-60s. They've spent the last few days building a lean-to out of broken bits of cracked plywood and rusty nails salvaged from the broken homes.

The nails keep bending and the hammer has a broken plastic handle.  

Julian wants to make sure that his wife Eloise does not have to sleep in the open anymore. Eloise is afraid of being harmed by the bad spirits that she says live in the dark sky.

But there is not a lot of hammering going on here. Most of the residents of La Mangeoire spend their days sitting around, numb.

Teenage boys stare into space. Young women sit in a circle fiddling with broken bits of concrete, grandmothers stand over smoking wood fires stirring pots of rice and peas for hours, slicing in bits of wieners.

One grandmother served herself. Two spoonfuls of rice. A spoonful of peas. Two pieces of wiener.

Deciding to stay

Nathalie Hermantain lived in the mansion at the top of the hill overlooking La Mangeoire.

Her home did not collapse but it is full of cracks and too dangerous to live in anymore so she now sleeps on the patio.

In La Mangeoire, the simplest of meals: rice and peas, well stirred. (David Gutnick/CBC)

She's has offered her electrical generator so that the people of La Mangeoire can have a bit of light in the evenings.

"Everybody from the area has taken refuge in my yard. Everybody's together," she says, "I feel a sense of responsibility you know."

Nathalie Harmantain studied at the University of Miami. She has travelled the world. But La Mangeoire remains home.

"There's something special about the people in the neighbourhood," she says. This is real, this is what it is.

I feel like something has disconnected in my brain because everyday they're saying 'you know so and so died' and you are like 'oh really, oh really' and it's like I don't think I'll ever be the same again."

As evening falls, more and more people curl up on their mattresses and get ready for sleep.

The sound of a prayer service led by a local pastor drifts over the rubble, voices lifted in song gently mix with a low hum of conversation and the occasional whap, whap, whap of low-flying military helicopters.

"Maybe help will come tomorrow," says Anicile St-Hilaire.