x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Haiti's children scarred by the earthquake

Part four: the earthquake turned the lives of 1.5 million children upside down, with 500,000 still living in vulnerable conditions.

"When I'm at school, I always think about how it was under the rubble," says Mendji Bahina Sanon, right. The 11-year-old girl, seen with her mother, Ernste Clerge, survived nine days trapped beneath debris.

The earthquake turned the lives of 1.5 million children upside down, with 500,000 still living in vulnerable conditions. Psychologists say that without proper counselling, a generation may never overcome the trauma. PORT-AU-PRINCE // When she was pulled from her toppled home after surviving nine days without food or water, Mendji Bahina Sanon became something of a cause-célèbre for the Haiti earthquake, recounting her ordeal to western journalists from a hospital bed.

Today, six months after Haiti's capital was shattered by the magnitude-7 quake, television crews have lost interest in the 11-year-old schoolgirl's plight. Yet her impressionable young mind remains tortured after spending more than a week entombed in a concrete coffin. The United Nations warns that she is not alone. The lives of 1.5 million children were turned upside down on January 12, including 500,000 now living in "extremely vulnerable" conditions. Experts warn that, without proper counselling, Haiti's younger generation will bear a permanent psychological scar.

Known to friends as Fedora, the schoolgirl realises that her dream of working in a bank will be difficult to achieve. Since she returned to the classroom in April, memories of the earthquake break her concentration. Her grades have dropped. "I used to be good at maths and writing, but I'm not as good as I used to be. When I'm at school, I always think about how it was under the rubble and how things were difficult for me," she said.

She pulled back clothing to reveal blemishes on her belly and thigh. "Whenever I look at these scars, I remember how much I suffered, what I went through and how hard it was." Fedora said she remembered thinking "Jesus was coming" when seismic tremors ripped through her family home in Pétionville and brought the ceiling down upon her and four siblings, including a five-year-old brother who perished under a shower of concrete boulders.

"I had never experienced anything like this before. I started running, but I fell down and passed out," she said. "I had nothing - no food or water. I screamed and made noise, but nobody heard me. When I couldn't cry any more, I pounded on the television screen. But I always knew I would come out alive because I felt someone with a lot of power was with me, God." Her mother, Ernste Clerge, had given up Fedora for dead when, after nine days, neighbours digging for clothes heard her daughter's faint knocking. After an 18-hour rescue operation, an emaciated and dusty Fedora was pulled from the rubble.

Ms Clerge, 39, a cleaner, is grateful for the exposure her daughter received on BBC, CNN and France Info, but laments how interest dried up within days and her children became just another homeless Haitian family living under tarpaulins. "When she was in the hospital, journalists and doctors asked what she wanted. She needed clothes and shoes that were in the house - but nobody came good on their promises," she said.

With 46 per cent of Haiti's population under the age of 18, children are estimated to make up about half of the 1.6 million homeless now enduring the squalor and stench of overcrowded tent cities, bracing themselves for hurricane season. Camp children are at risk of violence, sex abuse and child trafficking, the UN says. Psychologists warn parents to monitor children for bed-wetting, nightmares, under-eating, smoking or drinking alcohol as symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Lesly Guerrier, 31, a psychologist working in tent cities to counsel young trauma victims for the aid group Care, said Haiti was ill-equipped to provide post-quake counselling for bereaved, injured and orphaned children. "It would have been easier for children to overcome their trauma if there had been a system to treat them immediately, but the government just wasn't ready in the two or three days after the earthquake," Mr Guerrier said.

"Are we going to be able to regain the well-being that we had before the quake? It depends on the support we get from our country and those around us. We've taken some steps already, but there are many more to go." One of the biggest challenges facing Haiti is rebuilding a shattered education system, where 4,000 schools were damaged or destroyed, 1,500 teachers and staff killed and 2.5 million schoolchildren had their education interrupted.

Port-au-Prince was hit hard, with almost 80 per cent of education centres destroyed. The UN and Haitian education officials have reopen four-fifths of the damaged schools in the capital and the southern port town of Jacmel, often teaching under tarpaulins. Mehdi Benchelah, a spokesman for the UN education agency, Unesco, described the importance of classroom trauma-counselling. "Psychological help in the schools is an essential step for the recovery and well-being of both teachers and schoolchildren".

But child specialists point out that Haiti was not a great place to grow up even before the earthquake, with grinding poverty and a weak state school system meaning that more than half of children did not see the inside of a classroom. Some 1.2 million children were vulnerable to violence and abuse, with poor parents sending 225,000 into domestic servitude. A further 2,000 children were trafficked through the neighbouring Dominican Republic each year.

For Nadine Beaujour, one of 5,300 residents at Gaston Margron camp just outside the capital in Carrefour, the group counselling sessions run by Care are helping her "deal with emotions" and detect the trauma among her three surviving children. The 31-year-old, currently eight months pregnant, lost her five-year-old daughter when their nearby family home collapsed. Her 12-year-old daughter cries every time she sees a child resembling her dead sister, while a son breaks into tears seemingly "out of nowhere". Her husband, a coffin-builder, cannot work after a back injury sustained in the quake. "We can't fend for ourselves. We want to send our children to school because we think education is important, but right now, we cannot do anything for them." jreinl@thenational.ae

Read our previous reports on Haiti six months after the earthquake here and here. Watch and hear our audio-visual report on Haiti six months after the earthquake here.