A mother’s nightmare after the Haiti earthquake

PUERTO PRÍNCIPE, Oct 31 (By Juan Haro, UNICEF photojournalist) –

The door to Mélienne Dessir’s house barely closes. The entire rear of the building fell into the sea the day the earthquake struck Pestel, in southwestern Haiti.

That morning, August 14, this 24-year-old woman and mother of three, got up early to go shopping for groceries at the market. Twenty minutes after leaving the house, time suddenly stopped. The ground opened under the market stalls. The foundations of the police station, the health center and the municipal school crumbled. The houses near the sea were hit by the waves.

Terrified neighbors tried to save their lives by fleeing their homes and running towards the highway. An old ghost was wreaking havoc again in Haiti. Another earthquake. Another nightmare.

Celine, 18 months, was playing with her brother Richardson, 5, and sister Cynthia, 8, when the front of their house collapsed on her. His heart stopped beating instantly. Dessir ran as fast as he could back home, fear gripping his heart.

“When I arrived …” She holds her breath and clenches her teeth to hold back the tears. “When I got home, our neighbor gave me Celine’s body. I fainted when I realized I wasn’t dreaming … I had lost her.”

Nobody lives on the main street of Pestel anymore, a beautiful fishing village on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, where in the afternoons soccer was played in the square, fish was sold in the port and the sunset was reflected in the green mountains. Now the streets are empty. There are only broken houses, personal effects and rubble on every corner.

At least 2,200 people died in the 7.2 magnitude earthquake. More than 12,000 were injured. An estimated 1.2 million people, including 540,000 children, were affected; more than 50,000 houses were destroyed.

The loss of her daughter and her home left Dessir in a deep state of shock, as if nothing and no one could take away a pain that only a mother would understand. She is strong and brave, and hides her tears from the eyes of others. But it cannot camouflage the wounds within it.


On the day of the earthquake, Cynthia was also injured. So, with barely time to absorb the death of her baby, Dessir ran to the nearest medical center for help. But there was no center, just a pile of rubble. In the following days, mobile clinics were set up near the nearest hotel, where many families now sleep on the floor, including Dessir and her son.

Now, Dessir must find the strength to occasionally take the ship that brings her closer to her surviving daughter, Cynthia. The little girl is recovering from her injuries at the home of a friend of her father in Zétroit, a town 20 minutes from Pestel, on the other side of the bay.

“It was not an easy decision, but a few days after the earthquake my husband and I decided that the best thing for Cynthia would be to recover in a quiet place. With the aftershocks of the following days, and without a roof to sleep under, she could not stay. with me, “says Dessir. “It’s hard not seeing her so much.” On every trip through the bay, food and water are brought with them, because there is no drinking water in the town.

“It makes me sad to think that I will never see my little sister again,” says Cynthia. “Everything happened very fast”. His life was turned upside down the day he lost his sister and she ended up with injuries to her back and shoulders. He is slowly recovering without professional care because there is no health center near Zétroit. His mother’s visit brings him back a shy smile, but the signs of his pain are visible.

The scars on your back will be a permanent reminder of scenes that no child should witness. “Children affected by the earthquake are highly exposed to post-traumatic stress problems that can affect their cognitive and social development,” explains Jean Stenio, head of the UNICEF office in Los Cayos. “This can translate into depression, sadness, being less active, poor school performance, and thinking about and remembering the disaster. Your mental health is a priority for us.”


To help affected families, UNICEF is on the ground providing emergency assistance such as psychological support or access to hygiene kits and safe water. It is also working with authorities to rebuild schools and for students to resume their learning, despite logistical and security difficulties in the country.

“I hope we can meet soon,” says Pascal, Dessir’s husband. “I miss them when they leave. They are not easy days, I assure you.” He was the one who took his daughter to the village after receiving the first medical help at the mobile clinic. Before the earthquake, Pascal worked as a laborer between Pestel and Zétroit. He tries to keep his morale high, and struggles to move on with his family.

Despite her injuries, Cynthia cannot resist getting out of bed and accompanying her mother and brother to the port. He watches them leave on the boat, not knowing when he will see them again. After the earthquake, many families face the difficulty of being separated from their loved ones, without means of communication or transportation.

Back in Pestel, everything remains the same: the ground cracked by the earthquake, the fishing boats docked in the shallow waters. Dessir wasn’t much on the way to the cemetery, clutching her son close to her.

“We buried her the same day of the earthquake. After the funeral, the reality of what had happened began to become apparent. We did not have time or money to build a grave. We buried her underground. Here my little girl sleeps forever”, Dessir says.

Richardson watches the scene without really understanding what they are doing there. Celine is buried under a small mound in the Pestel cemetery. It is not the only one with the same date of death. “I asked God: why me? Why always us? Why my daughter?” Dessir laments. “But, despite everything, I will find the strength to continue. Because I have two wonderful children who need me strong. And that gives me courage.”

At UNICEF we also have thousands of children affected by the earthquake, specifically about 540,000, who also need us and who we are not going to abandon. Two months and a half months later – in the midst of a permanent political, economic and social crisis – we are working tirelessly to meet their immediate needs and ensure protection for them.


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