HAITI–(ENEWSPF)–29 January 2010 – Even before this month’s earthquake, Port-au-Prince could be a difficult place to work. Now, with half the city destroyed, 1 million residents displaced and the stress from frequent aftershocks, there are new challenges to working in the Haitian capital.
And yet some United Nations staff members in Haiti say that, despite the personal losses and professional pressures they have experienced as a result of the disaster, continuing to work is the only option that makes sense.
“My pregnancy almost drifted into the background,” Amelia Shaw, a television producer with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), told the UN News Centre.
“I was forcibly reminded by my boss and the staff counsellor to go home and hand over. That’s hard to hear because you get tied up in the urgency of what’s happening and in being part of the machine of making it better. And you stop thinking for a little while of the life that you’re carrying.”
Ms. Shaw, who will go on maternity leave next week, was in her office in an annex of the Christopher Hotel when the earthquake struck.
“I heard it before I felt it. I thought it was a truck. I looked out the window and everything was swinging. I tried to get to the door, and my cameraman was behind me and he laid on top of me. He wanted to shield me. Our photographer was bouncing off the walls screaming ‘get out’.”
Ms. Shaw and her colleagues ran out into the parking lot, climbing over a car that had crashed into their building, and got down on the ground.
“After 15 seconds, it was calm. Someone with us stuttered ‘where’s our building?’ There was gold dust. There was so much dust. It was all lit up by the sun going down. It took us 20 minutes to realize the building wasn’t there anymore.”
On the other side of town, Jean-Lionel Présumé, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) coordinator with the cash-for-work programme, was visiting family.
“It only lasted a minute but it was the longest minute of my life,” Mr. Présumé told UNDP. When it was over, he ran around the corner to his own house and saw that it had completely collapsed, with his brother and his wife inside. He heard his brother’s voice from the rubble and started to dig.
“I dug with my bare hands. It took me three hours but I was able to get him out.”
The body of his sister-in-law was recovered the next day.
Meanwhile, Jens Kristensen, a MINUSTAH humanitarian worker, was buried beneath the Christopher Hotel, where he would spend five days clinging to hope and a mobile phone. Just as Ms. Shaw and Mr. Présumé, he has since returned to work.
“If you see the devastation in Haiti at the moment, it is enormous. I cannot just evacuate. I feel physically sore after five days on a concrete slab but mentally I am strong enough to do it. And certainly at a time when the country needs so much assistance,” Mr. Kristensen said.
With much of Port-au-Prince destroyed, many humanitarian workers are homeless, sleeping on the same streets they work on during the day.
“It is the only situation we’ve seen where the humanitarian community, our own staff, are as affected as the population,” World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran told reporters earlier this week.
“For the first 10 days, I and most of my colleagues would sleep on the floor outside the office or on a cot,” Ms. Shaw said. For the last five days she has shared a tent with her husband, a fellow MINUSTAH staff member who was outside of Haiti and just received authorization to return.
“We were surviving on military rations. We got one ready-to-eat meal a day and water. There is enough to eat now, but the first few days were touch and go,” Ms. Shaw said.
While physically staff are making due, there are psychological and emotional concerns.
“You feel like you’re coping but you don’t know how it’s going to be when you leave the place. You’re in a little bubble surrounded by colleagues who experienced the same thing. You don’t have to explain,” Ms. Shaw said.
“You still feel it could come back. We still have tremors. I share an office with 30 people, and there was a tremor. Maybe magnitude two. People almost broke their ankles to run out the door,” she added.
Mr. Kristensen said, “I think I can handle it, but you never know. That will come to the test in a few weeks. Right now I’m busy. It keeps me occupied. Maybe when I’m not busy there will be a reaction. That’s what all the people tell me.”
MINUSTAH has up to five counsellors available at any time for staff. Without an office, the counsellors hold meetings outside. Many of the counsellors have undergone the same traumatic experiences as the staff they are supporting.
“The counselling services have been doing an excellent job under the leadership of Dr. Youssoupha Niang. They’ve been working day and night. I know many staff have been going to see them,” said Nicole Bergener-Guimaraes, Chairperson of the MINUSTAH Field Staff Union.
MINUSTAH has also instigated mandatory two-week relocations for staff. Temporary replacements have been flying in from the New York headquarters and other missions to assist the local and international staff.
“Some of the MINUSTAH staff don’t want to go, but it’s for their own good,” said Ms. Bergener-Guimaraes. “Everyone wants to come to help us, the mission, and Haiti, our country.”