Two quakes, two countries – one family

The Desarmes flew from Haiti's ruins straight into another disaster in Chile
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The Independent US

The Desarmes family left their native Haiti two weeks after the devastating earthquake, joining the eldest son in Chile for what seemed a refuge from the chaos of Port-au-Prince.

Their sense of security lasted barely a month. It was shattered at 3:43am last Saturday when one of the most powerful quakes on record shook a swath of Chile.

All the Desarmes' immediate family survived both quakes. But twice cursed, the family now sleeps in the garden of a home that the eldest son, Pierre Desarmes, found for them just south of the capital of Santiago. They fear yet another temblor will strike.

"I left my country and came here because of an earthquake," Seraphin Philomene, a 21-year-old student and cousin of the Desarmes family, said. "And here, the same thing!"

"My God, I left my country and I didn't die, but I'm going to die here."

Mr Desarmes, 34, managed to get his family out of Haiti thanks to contacts at the Chilean Embassy and the armed forces. A total of nine members of his family – his parents, two brothers and their families, and three cousins – arrived in Santiago on a Chilean air force plane on 23 January.

Mr Desarmes, the lead singer of a popular reggaeton band in Chile, still gets choked up when he recalls seeing his family for the first time stepping off the plane. "I saw them but I didn't believe it. I said, 'My God, they're here.' It was a very difficult moment," he said, speaking in French in the garden of the house the family now calls home.

"Each time I think about it, I get sad, because I realise I was able to do this because I live here. But there are so many people in Haiti and I don't know what's going to happen to them."

His relatives had to leave Haiti with only hours' notice, receiving instructions on where to go via mobile phone text messages from a relative in the United States who was in contact with Mr Desarmes in Santiago. Ms Philomene didn't even have time to pack, dashing to the Chilean Embassy when she received word the family had been cleared to fly out.

Saturday's earthquake, now estimated to have killed 279 people, has made a difficult transition even more traumatic. "When the aftershocks come, they refuse to stay in the house," Mr Desarmes said, sipping a fizzy drink at a table in the garden, his relatives sitting nearby.

"I have to talk to them all day long telling them: 'There are no problems, it's a country that's prepared for earthquakes, it'll pass, it's not so bad.' But they don't hear me. Psychologically for them, they're still really affected by it." Mr Desarmes' brother, Stanley, 32, is deeply unsettled. The father of a two-year-old girl, Nelia, who plays in the yard, he worries for his family's safety and is thinking about uprooting them again to move somewhere with less danger of earthquakes.

"I don't know what I can do, but staying isn't possible," he said. "I could die and I could lose my family. I have to leave. I don't know where, I don't know how. But I don't want to die with my family here."

Ms Philomene, his cousin, plans to stay, hoping to bring the rest of her family to Chile. She was the only member of her immediate family to get out because she was living with the Desarmes in the Haitian capital to finish her studies. Her mother, father, two sisters and a brother are still in Cap-Haitien, a town in northern Haiti about 90 miles from the capital.

"I've had no news from them," she said, choking up. Reached late on Wednesday by the Associated Press in Cap-Haitien, Ms Philomene's father, Luigene Philomene, was elated at the news that his daughter was safe. He said he hadn't heard from her since before Chile's earthquake and had been trying to reach relatives in Port-au-Prince for an update.

Mr Philomene said when he heard that his daughter had been in the Chile earthquake he thought of a Haitian saying that loosely translates as "we saved her from the river and she ended up in the sea". Now he feels she has divine protection and the 43-year-old said he would eagerly join his daughter in South America if he could. "God is looking for out for us," he said. "Our family didn't die in Haiti so they aren't going to die in Chile either."

Francius Pierre, a cousin of Ms Philomene's in Port-au-Prince, had already learned from a brother that his relatives in Chile survived. Pierre, a university student who injured his knee in the Haitian quake, said Ms Philomene and his other relatives moved from Haiti for safety. "If they knew something like this could happen again they never would have gone," he said.