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Aftershock: How Haiti's quake hit the whole of Hispaniola

Two years on from the disaster that shook the Caribbean state, its eastern neighbour, the Dominican Republic, fears a new wave of illegal immigrants could hurt its booming economy
  • @iburrell

The flooded Malpasse border crossing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has become a disturbing symbol of how the two nations that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola are standing on the brink of chaos as they struggle with the pressures of deteriorating natural and social conditions.

Passport control on the Haitian side has become inundated by the rising waters of Lake Azuei and travellers entering the building must follow a stepping stone path of breeze blocks to keep their feet dry as they have their documents stamped. The Dominican side is like a scene from the Wild West, as travellers arrive on the backs of ageing motorcycles to be surrounded by gangs of jobless youths pleading to carry their bags in wheelbarrows through puddles to the customs office.

The bare road, which two years ago was repaired by Japanese engineers as part of Haiti's post-earthquake relief, has been submerged by the lake. The lorries and coaches that cross from the Dominican Republic must cope with waters that reach their wheel arches.

The Haitian President, Michel Martelly, a former popular singer known as "Sweet Micky", celebrated his first year in office this month but his position has become a precarious one. Heavily criticised by the Haitian media for his perceived lack of political experience, he has become increasingly isolated after losing his Prime Minister, Garry Conille, who resigned in February after a political power struggle.

Last week in the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, thousands of former soldiers marched through the streets in their fatigues, demanding that Haiti establish an army for the first time since it was disbanded by the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995 after a series of abuses. Mr Martelly has given the old soldiers hope by appointing a Defence Minister, Rodolphe Joasil, but the demonstrations provoked violence and more than 50 arrests.

These uneasy scenes are being monitored by the often young and inexperienced United Nations soldiers from Brazil, Bolivia and Bangladesh who patrol the city in troop carriers with their weapons at the ready. At the Malpasse crossing point, off-duty soldiers in Brazilian football shirts head for rest, recuperation and the company of local girls in the beach resorts of the Dominican Republic.

The Haitian unrest was not what Dominicans wanted to see on the eve of their own national elections, which took place on Sunday; an alcohol ban was imposed to reduce the prospects of violence on the streets of the capital, Santo Domingo. Local newspapers appealed for calm while also reporting fears that the situation in Port-au-Prince could provoke a fresh exodus of illegal Haitian immigrants across the fragile border that cuts through the island from north to south.

Those who have left impoverished Haiti for the more favourable economic conditions on the other side of the island complain of discrimination, and Haitian descendants who were born on the Dominican side of the border are habitually denied citizenship rights. In turn, the Dominicans fear further migration will destabilise a country that has become one of the Caribbean's fastest-growing economies and the No 1 tourist destination in the region, its all-inclusive coastal resorts attracting large numbers of European and North American beach-worshippers.

Last weekend's Dominican elections were a close-run thing and the threat of meltdown was recognised by the moderate winning candidate, Danilo Medina, who embraced the slogan "The best change is safe change". Mr Medina's Dominican Liberation Party took 51 per cent of the vote compared with the more radical Dominican Revolutionary Party, which took 47 per cent. Hipolito "Papa" Mejia, leader of the latter party, questioned the validity of the outcome and claimed it was "the result of manipulation and abuse of power". But Mr Medina promised a brighter future, telling supporters: "With this victory I want to unite the Dominican Republic."

When the Haitian earthquake struck in January 2010, the Dominicans were the first people to come to their neighbour's assistance and aid lorries poured through the ramshackle border post at Malpasse. But more than two years on, large numbers of Haitians are still living under tarpaulin. In the district of Pétion-Ville on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, thousands are still camped on the site of a former golf course. The mass of tents and portable toilets resembles the scene of an outdoor music festival. The homeless population is gradually falling and along the main highways are signs of new houses being built from piles of breeze blocks. But as one Haitian remarked: "We have no production. I wonder whether there is another country on earth like Haiti."

In the hillside Pétionville neighbourhood of Morne Lazare, where all but four buildings were reduced to rubble by the earthquake, Rea Dol provides a refuge for 664 pupils in a community school that she opened for poor children in 2002, funded by the Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétionville, a grass-roots social organisation. Ms Dol lost 28 children and two teachers in the disaster and described how her charges still run into the street in panic at the sound of loud traffic noises. Most of the homes around the school are patched-up temporary dwellings and Ms Dol is critical of the failure of the Haitian government, the United Nations and the many non-governmental organisations to improve conditions in her country.

Even so, on the day the old soldiers marched in Port-au-Prince, other Haitians were celebrating in different fashion the Day of the Flag national holiday, which marks the moment in 1803 when the Haitian revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines symbolically tore the white segment from the French tricolour. In the clean mountainous air of rural Thoman, in the east of the country, dozens of local youths in matching red T-shirts recognised the holiday with a motorcycle procession, which their fellow villagers greeted enthusiastically by waving national flags. On both sides of Hispaniola, a sense of national pride and hope endures.

Hispaniola: A divided island

Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, and within a few years the Spanish had established a settlement on the Caribbean island. In 1697, Spain ceded the west to France. The country we now know as Haiti was founded in 1804 when the former colony's African slaves overthrew their French oppressors and established the world's first black republic. In 1822, Haitian forces marched east and took over the entire island. The Dominican Republic finally became independent in 1844 after a 22-year occupation.