Haitians Flee Capital, Rural Areas Have Little To Offer

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Half a million people have fled Port-au-Prince since January's earthquake, and it's key to Haiti's recovery plan that they don't come back. The city was overcrowded to begin with, and it would be very expensive to rebuild it well enough to withstand the next earthquake. One woman, 29, returned to her family home in the countryside. Her plight epitomizes the difficulties Haiti will face as it struggles to rebuild.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Half a million people left the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince last month following the earthquake. The government is hoping that many of them won't come back. The city was overcrowded to begin with, and it will be very expensive to rebuild it well enough to withstand the next inevitable earthquake. NPR's Richard Harris traveled to the Haitian countryside to see how people displaced by the earthquake are coping.

RICHARD HARRIS: A 29-year-old woman named Carlene Etienne(ph) personifies many of the issues that Haiti will face as it tries to resettle a large segment of its population. We meet her in front of her housie under a coconut tree in the agriculture town of Mirebalais, which is on a plateau about an hour's drive from Port-au-Prince.

Her hair is neatly braided under a brown scarf, and her six-year-old daughter Rudamar(ph) clings to her and smiles shyly from behind her skirts.

Ms. CARLENE ETIENNE: (Foreign language spoken)

RUDAMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Life has never been easy for Carlene. She grew up in this town with her unemployed mom. Seven years ago, she set off to Port-au-Prince to seek a better life.

Ms. ETIENNE: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: There's nothing going on in this town, she says, but there was nothing for her in Port-au-Prince either. She lived off her friends and eventually got married and had a baby. She occasionally sold a few things, but otherwise just got by until the earthquake shattered her home.

Ms. ETIENNE: (Through translator) I came back after the earthquake, because when our house collapsed I was living, sleeping on the streets. And I was afraid to get sick or for my daughter to get sick. She's six years old. And it's cold out there during the night. So it was not good for us.

HARRIS: Her husband also lost his job, so there was no money for food. Things are certainly more peaceful for her in the countryside, but life is hard here. Carlene and Rudamar now share a small and decrepit house with six other relatives. She has no money, so she depends on her family to feed her, which isn't a sure thing. If there are jobs in this town, she doesn't know about them.

And farmers here who grow plantains, rice and sweet potatoes find it hard to work the seriously degraded land. That's a problem throughout Haiti.

Ms. ETIENNE: (Through translator): I used to hear my grandma say, yes, the land was really good. There were - they have a lot of crops. They have a lot of things from the land, but now, no.

HARRIS: Mirebalais wasn't damaged by the quake, so up and down its dirt streets there are thousands of other refugees like Carlene with other stories to tell, sharing houses, food and worship.

(Soundbite of singing)

Congregation: (Singing) Alleluia...

HARRIS: Dozens of boys and girls with ribbons in their hair and pretty dresses gather outside an Evangelical church Sunday afternoon. The giggles and happy smiles belie and sad truth about this region. Malnutrition was a serious problem in this area even before the earthquake.

On a side street, we find town Mayor Laguerre Lochard at home. Four listless teenagers are hanging out on his front porch.

Mayor LAGUERRE LOCHARD: (Through translator) But we got those young men out -example, the four of them, they come from La Plaine(ph), a place in Port-au-Prince. And they were here in Mirebalais. We didn't know that. And they don't have nowhere else to go. No place to live. So we just take them and we are trying to help them.

HARRIS: The mayor figures there are as many as 16,000 refugees in this town of 90,000. They're Haitians, he says, so we must take care of them, but he doesn't have the resources.

A few days after our visit, a Christian charity called World Vision says it did start to distribute food to refugees in Mirebalais. And a spokesman says the group, which is supported by USAID, is preparing to provide shelter and even long term agricultural improvements in the area if and when the Haitian government decides it wants that.

That's all well and good, but Carlene Etienne still hopes that God will provide her a way to get back to Port-au-Prince.

Ms. ETIENNE: (Through translator): Right now I don't want to go back, because it's not good at all. But if things change, if there's a change, yes, I'll go back.

HARRIS: That is unless someday there's a job for her husband and a better life here in Mirebalais.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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