With resilience and spirit, Haiti slowly returns to life

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, Kim Sengupta meets the actors staging a play with broken props, the homeless woman dressed to impress for an interview and the man pinning hope on a lottery win
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The Independent US

The performance takes place at night against the backdrop of a shattered hulk which used to be an office block. The actors, illuminated by the flickering light of burning debris, use broken pieces of furniture for props, The audience squat on the ground, some bandaged, some with makeshift crutches lying beside them.

The plot of the play, a romantic comedy, is lost in translation. But the cast are enthusiastic and the audience clap appreciatively before returning to their homes, tents of rags and plastic sheeting on the pavement ten yards away.

Among the rubble of quake-stricken Haiti, life is returning, with resilience and spirit. Factory assembly lines are humming back to production, television and mobile telephone coverage is back and shops have reopened.

At a stall near the Champs de Mars plaza in Port-au-Prince, Leon Mexes was buying a ticket for the New York lottery. "Listen man, after all that's happened here, we all deserve a bit of luck. Who says it will not be me?" the 32-year-old asked. "But if I win then I will spend only a little bit on women and drink. The rest I will use to help my neighbourhood."

Half a mile away, Suzanne Vera was not leaving her future to chance. Dressed in a black jacket with big shoulder pads, white skirt and matching stilettos, and sunglasses perched on her head, she was heading for a series of job interviews with international aid organisations."They want people to work in refugee camps and they also have vacancies for secretarial work, which is what I would prefer," she said. "I want to get there early and I want to show that I am serious. That is why I try to look smart".

What makes Ms Vera's efforts all the more remarkable is that for the past two weeks she and her extended family of nine have been living on the street. "We will be staying there unless I get a job, so I've got to do what I can," she shrugged.

Brushing broken glass and masonry from outside his shop, tailor Alain Johns was hoping that business would pick up soon. "I have got some stock left, I'll try and get more from Santa Domingo [in the neighbouring Dominican Republic] and start up. Most people have lost their clothes in the earthquake and also all the foreigners may want to have clothes made as well."

The disposable income of people like Ms Vera and Mr Johns will have to rise considerably before they could afford to shop at the Rivoli. Set on the hillside at Pétionville, a suburb of the capital where the wealthy and the influential live, the boutique is devoted to designer goods. There are Hermes scarves and Lacoste T-shirts, Tag-Heuer watches and bottles of Chanel perfume.

"We had some damage, some glasses and a vase, but we were quite lucky overall," said Emmanuelle Hudicourt, the 26-year-old manager, standing under a chandelier in the air-conditioned store as salesgirls flitted around adjusting the display cabinets.

"We reopened last Monday. People probably do not know that and we need to get the word to them. We have a steady group of regular customers, some of them may have left the country, but we are confident that they will come back. It will be good for things to go back to normal as soon as possible."

Food, water and petrol – which disappeared in the aftermath of the quake – have now started reappearing, albeit at a high price. Half a dozen restaurants have reopened, catering for the ever-growing numbers of aid workers, diplomats but also affluent Haitians. Every table was full at the Jetset near the city centre, with the staff apologising that some of the bottles on the wine list were unavailable.

The Brasserie Nationale d'Haiti, one of the country's biggest beverage manufacturers, was the first factory to re-open. It will soon start rolling out its most popular product, Prestige beer, but for the moment the concentration is on producing what is most essential: bottled water.

Around 370 of the company's workforce have been called back on duty with the promise of an advance on their wages. But not everyone was entirely comfortable about working indoors. Many are worried that there will be an aftershock. "We are here but we are afraid to be inside the factory," said Yvien Chery. "Everybody feels like that, what happened is on everyone's mind."

Gus Hardreau was helping to put the remains of a hairdressing salon into the back of one of the large trucks which had been ferrying bodies only a few days previously. He is part of a temporary UN programme, employing 11,000 people to clean up the streets. "I am a schoolteacher but there is no school where I can teach," he said. "So I will do this for the time being. I saw a boy I taught also doing this. We are all in the same situation."

Amid the hive of public activity the one person noticeable by his absence is President René Préval. Apart from announcing that he was indefinitely postponing next month's legislative elections, little has been seen or heard of him. He has yet to fulfil a pledge made at a quake summit in Montreal earlier this week – to start living in a tent.

In a rare statement, the President said he did not want to "exploit" the situation. "We have two ways of doing things: the way politicians do, where we go to the hospital and we cry with the people, or to sit and to work and find the right way to recovery."

This was met with derision in the queue for replacement passports at the Central Immigration and Emigration Office.

"I want a passport so that I can get a visa to get out. I will join my cousins in Miami," said Claude Eperney. "Many of us want to get out until things get better here. Not all of us can do it like Monsieur le President. He must be a magician, he has made himself disappear."

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