One in a million: the girl who symbolises the orphan crisis facing Haiti
Wednesday 20 January 2010
Her name is Wideline Fils Amie. She is nine years old. Both her parents are dead, and her only possession is the red tartan dress on her back. For the past week, she's been living and sleeping in the indescribably filthy back-yard of the Foyer de Sion orphanage in Pétionville. When you ask how she is feeling, Wideline whispers two words, through her broken teeth: "hungry" and "scared".
Eighteen boys and girls, aged two to 15, are holed-up behind the tattered two-storey building in the hills just outside Port-au-Prince. Their food reserves consist of three bags of rice, three bags of beans, a few yams, and half a bottle of orange cordial. As of yesterday morning, they hadn't a single drop of drinking water left. And a week after the earthquake that flattened their city, the orphanage has not received a single batch of aid.
"I don't know why," says Pascale Mardy, the orphanage's manager. "We have almost nothing left. When the earthquake happened, I had $100 in my pocket to buy food. Now I have spent the last dollar, so we are down to one meal a day. We are in trouble."
It's the same story across Port-au-Prince, where a dysfunctional aid effort is still only slowly creaking into action. Huge reserves of supplies sit on the runway of the city's airport. Cargo ships are marooned at sea, unable to reach its damaged harbour. Haiti's death toll was yesterday being estimated at 200,000. The capital no longer has piles of bodies on the streets. But you can smell corpses everywhere beneath the rubble. Almost everyone you meet has lost their home and several relatives.
The scale of the bereavement is so massive that your sympathies become numb. I barely flinched when Ms Mardy told me she was mourning both her sister and mother-in-law, and is sleeping with the children, in the yard of her orphanage.
Wideline grew up with loss, but the earthquake turned a bad situation worse. She never knew her father. Her mother died when she was six, and she has lived at the orphanage ever since. When the quake struck, she was playing with friends at school. Now, she seems deeply traumatised. "Some children ran out, but I stayed inside. I saw them get very hurt," she whispers. "Now, I am afraid to stay in Haiti. There are many, many people dead; bad things are happening. I am afraid to die too." Has she lost any friends? "Many", she replies.
The state of the Foyer de Sion has to be seen to be believed. A mixture of mud and faeces covers the floor. There is no electricity. Children, usually eight to a room, are now too scared to go inside the building, in case of aftershocks, so have been dossing down on mattresses in the yard outside.
The toilets haven't been flushed for a week. Their one meal a day comes from a cauldron of rice and beans, plus a small ration of vegetables. In the absence of proper drinking water, they will soon be forced to drink from a filthy water main outside.
All 28 of Ms Mardy's children survived last Tuesday's quake. Since then, many more parentless children have been arriving at her gates. Haiti had an astonishing 380,000 orphans even before this disaster, from a population of 9 million. Now the figure could be twice that or higher. Some aid agencies reckon the island may soon have up to a million children to look after. But like many care institutions Foyer de Sion is unable to take any more: Ms Mardy says she cannot spare her food reserves.
The psychological trauma is an even bigger worry, Ms Mardy says. "They won't go in to the house. They won't go upstairs. They have to have someone lying next to them to be able to sleep, and they follow me around and want to hold my hand all the time. They don't have toys here, but to be honest then they don't want to play anyway, because they just have too many problems."
A sudden flood of adoption agencies into Port-au-Prince, hoping to scoop up orphans and whisk them away to new lives could ease some of the pressure. One planeload is bound for Holland today, and another has gone to Pennsylvania, raising fears of a free-for-all in which childless parents are able to bypass normal procedures.
Yesterday morning, a bus from a Mormon Church in Salt Lake City arrived at the gates of Foyer de Sion, and removed a load of infants. "Ten children went to Utah this morning," says Ms Mardy. "The paperwork wasn't correct but they were allowed to go and the US embassy let them in without a visa. They were already in the process of being adopted before the quake, and parents in America had chosen them from a photograph, but where before it would take two to three years to arrange adoption papers, they are now being rushed through."
It's difficult to see how these children won't have a better life than what they now endure. But child protection agencies have already criticised the rush to export orphans, saying a lack of proper procedures opens the door for fraud, abuse and child trafficking.
It's also heartbreaking to see how the adoption process divides winners from losers. Wideline doesn't have new parents yet, but at the age of nine stands a good chance of adoption. Mirlaine Pomelus, a 15-year-old girl standing next to her is less hopeful. "I do not want to stay here because I am scared. I am not just afraid of the earthquake. I am also afraid because the prison is broken and I think someone will come to kill us. Bad things are happening in Haiti."
Newly orphaned children are being handed out for adoption from Pétionville's nearby Mormon Church. Bishop Harry Mardy Mitchell has roughly 700 people in his churchyard, rising to 1,000 at night. Between 20 and 30 are orphaned. He introduced me to two-year-olds Wyclef and Evry, who are due to leave in the next week. "They have had no milk for days, and are living on cookies. They will go to America and become Americans. This is good because we can find parents to feed them and look after them, and give them a good education they would never otherwise have."
The exodus of orphans is also compounding the pressure on Haiti's airport. CNN reported yesterday that the Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, was able to land a chartered jet to take dozens of children back to the US. They were previously at the Bresna orphanage, which is run by two women from the Pittsburgh area. The Rendell plane landed on Monday, the day Médecins Sans Frontières says another aid flight was prevented from touching down in Port-au-Prince. The French medical charity has already had to delay the installation of an inflatable hospital in Port-au-Prince because of congestion at the airport.
Other flights full of food and water are still sitting around the Caribbean waiting for an all-clear to take off. The Médecins Sans Frontières hospital contained an operating theatre and intensive care unit. When it does eventually arrive, it could, like the rest of the incoming aid effort, be too little, too late.
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