Independent Appeal: Dead man walking and the world's worst slum

To kick off our appeal, Kim Sengupta meets the terminally ill Haitian devoting what remains of his life to the deprived

Patrice Millet is a dead man walking. But not because he was surrounded by menacing men in an area filled with gangs armed with guns and machetes in the place Mother Teresa once described as the worst few miles of slums anywhere in the world.

Mr Millet was diagnosed two years ago with terminal cancer. His response was to give up his construction business and devote himself to working in the slums of Haiti's Cité Soleil. "People from outside don't go into slums," he was told. "If you do, you are signing your death wish." Mr Millet shrugged. He has a death sentence anyway.

For 15 years his hobby had been teaching sports in his spare time. Now he decided he was going to bring football – and much more – to the poorest section of his society.

The day I met him he was in Solino, at a hamlet of canvas and tin in which the dispossessed live in grim squalor. Before the earthquake struck 11 months ago – that "day of catastrophe" – it was the site of one of three football pitches he had set up.

There was always more than football to his mission. After every practice session and game, a distribution of the plastic packets of rice, spaghetti, vegetables and milk takes place. But perhaps more important are the discussion sessions that take place afterwards – in which the boys, who range in age from eight to 15, are encouraged by Mr Millet and his volunteer coaches to discuss their schoolwork and current affairs – a particularly lively topic with the national elections held last week amid accusations of corruption and outbreaks of violence.

But then came the seismic tremors that claimed more than 230,000 lives and left 1.3 million people homeless. Swiftly, two of his three football pitches, at Solino and La Plaine, have become – like every available free site in the capital – tented camps for the multitude who are refugees in their own country.

The football, food distributions and pastoral discussions take place at the one remaining ground left for his foundation – a stretch of scrubby grass at Sodipal near the airport at Port-au-Prince. When he took me to Solino this week, however, it became clear that Mr Millet was not welcome. The reason was that, on his last visit months before, he had been accompanied by Michel Martelly, a former kompa jazz singer also known as "Sweet Mickey", who was standing as a presidential candidate. And Solino was now a fiefdom of Jude Celestin, the chosen successor of the outgoing President René Préval who cannot, under the constitution, run for a third term.

A man, large and stooping, fell into step behind us. Mr Millet was a dead man, he muttered in a hoarse whisper. It was a "big, big" mistake for us to have gone to Solino, where they hated "Sweet Mickey", he continued. Six of the man's companions, standing in a tight circle, stood watching with silent menace.

Patrice Millet is undeterred. Aged 49, with two grown-up children living in France and Canada, he sold his share of a construction business to his partner and devoted himself to his project, the Foundation Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours (FONDAPS). It is funded by Children on the Edge, one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. Thanks to the charity Mr Millet can now cover all the costs of his activities and hopes to be able to buy more land for his project.

It is doing vital work. Haiti is now in the grip of a cholera epidemic and rising political violence. Children are particularly vulnerable at this time of turbulence, but the group of boys Mr Millet helps have found some degree of stability thanks to the remarkable foundation which subsidises their education, provides food for their families and allows them an escape from the unrelenting hardship through football.

One of the boys who has been helped is Charles Shedson Ricardo. He broke off from a game to tell me: "Our home was damaged and it is not safe to live in. Now we have to stay in a small tent on the pavement. There is nowhere to do anything so, being able to come here and play football, something I really enjoy, is very good for me. I also get the food and we use it for our meal on Sundays." The teams play in second-hand football strips down to boots, and, for a lot of the boys, getting to Sodipal means a journey time of around two hours. This, however, has not stopped them from winning the regional under-15 championship and getting to the final of a tournament in Florida.

"Losing those two pitches was a big blow and, as you can see, the facilities here are hardly good. These boys are getting what we can scrape together and have to travel a very long way to get here," said Mr Millet.

"I have found myself having to find much more money for school fees and to get more food. This has not been easy – I pay for whatever the education costs out of my own pocket, but thankfully some charities provide the food which I collect and then hand over to the boys to take home," he said.

On the pitch this week the boys showed flashes of great skill. But many of them also looked undersized for their age and almost all were painfully thin. The norm for these boys is just one meal a day, and for 13-year-old August Ernst Junior this had consisted of a maize stew. He was hungry, he confided, but worried whether it would be right for him to take something from the food package before giving it to his mother.

August and his extended family of 13 are squashed together in a tent 18ft wide and 18ft long. But at least they have survived. August's brother, Jefson, is missing. He had been working to dig out victims of the earthquake, and had just pulled two young boys to safety, when the house in which he was working caved in. "We never found his body – it is still there somewhere," said August, looking down.

Mr Millet shook his head. "These boys have seen such a lot of suffering, deaths, at such young age that it is bound to have an effect. We can try to help them with food because they are malnourished, but this country simply does not have the resources to look after their psychological needs."

Mr Millet is sanguine about his own death. "I had an advanced form of bone cancer and the doctors in America gave me treatment while saying that they did not think it was going to work. It did work for a while but the cancer has come back. I am doing a lot of things I probably should not be doing, like playing football. Just the dust from this field hurts my lungs, but I need to carry on."

"But I have been as close to death as possible three times since my illness began and I have pulled through each time. My specialist in the US is amazed. He said 'Keep praying to whichever God you pray to.' I will keep doing that."

The charities in this year's 'Independent Christmas Appeal'

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by Aids in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk

CLICK HERE TO DONATE TO THE INDEPENDENT APPEAL

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