Families in turmoil: 'I phone and phone, but it never rings...'

John Lichfield joins desperate expats in Paris waiting for news of the loved ones they fear are lost for ever

On the elegant Boulevard de Villiers in central Paris yesterday, an anxious crowd besieged a small, untidy ground-floor office. Grasping passports or half-filled forms or photographs or scraps of paper with addresses or telephone numbers, the crowd – mostly men, but a scattering of women with small children – sought news; reassurance; financial help. In some cases, they admitted, they simply needed to feel that they were doing something; or they just wanted to be near to their fellow countrymen.

A small, scuffed brass sign beside the door read: "Consulat de Haiti".

After queuing for hours, many of them turned away, frustrated and helpless. Some wanted to go to Haiti to search for relatives but did not have the money. Others wanted to bring back family members but didn't have the correct papers. Some of the younger men were illegal immigrants who knew they could not go home and knew that the Consulate could do nothing for them. But where else could they go?

"My wife and three daughters are there. I have to get to Haiti, I have to bring my daughters to France, if they are alive," said Joseph Saint Ilus, 48, eyes gleaming with tears. "But I don't have passports for my daughters and all they can give me here is this."

He waved a four-page form which listed the sheaf of documents he needed to apply for emergency papers for his daughters. "Who can help me? I can't get all this. I don't know whether my daughters are dead or alive but I must go to Haiti. I must go to Haiti to bring them here. If they have been spared, and I pray to God they have been spared, there is nothing left in Haiti for them."

Mr Saint Ilus, who has lived legally in France for 10 years, is part of the 90,000 strong Haitian diaspora in France: the largest Haitian exile community in the world. He was convinced that he could find a flight to go home in the next few days but he didn't want to leave France unless he could be sure of bringing his daughters – aged 19, 16 and 13 – back with him.

"I have tried to telephone but the line does not even ring. No one can get through no one has any news," said Mr Saint Ilus. "Everyone here is in the same situation. We cannot carry on with our lives thinking that our family may be dead or injured or homeless. But we know nothing, and we can find out nothing, except the terrible pictures that everyone sees."

Joseph Grissier, 38, was still queuing for his turn to talk to a consular official. He also planned to go back to Haiti. He wanted to know if the consulate had any news of his small township 12 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

"I have brothers and sisters and cousins there. Scores of them. But I can find out nothing about what has happened to the communities to the west of Port-au-Prince... To know nothing is terrible. To see the pictures of this calamity and not to be able to reach your family is terrible. I have phoned and phoned but the numbers don't even ring..."

Jean-Gary Cadet, 26, has been in France illegally for four years. "I find work when I can but it is hard and often I am unemployed," he said. "I came here to earn money to send back to my family – to my parents and brothers and sisters – but now I don't know whether they are alive. I cannot go back. I have no papers. I would like to go back, like these other people, but I have no papers."

The French government has announced that it will not expel illegal immigrants from Haiti for the time being. Its generosity does not extend, however, to allowing "sans papiers" such as Mr Cadet to go home and then return to France. So why did he come to the Consulate? He shrugged. "To see if anyone knew something. To be with other Haitians. To do something," he said.

After a pause, Mr Cadet added: "But I would like you to say how grateful I am to the French people, to the British people, to the American people, to all the peoples of the world for what they are trying to do for Haiti."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

£21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor