Haiti: One family’s story of survival

February 4, 2010
Photo by Ed Kenney

Jeaninie was cooking when the quake struck in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. She heard the distant rumbling, but the next thing she remembers is being pulled from the rubble–unable to move. From that point on, with her children and husband all accounted for, the family trekked to La Gonâve for safety and medical care for Jeninie. La Gonâve’s space and resources are thin, but it’s the best bet for survival for most Haitians.

Jeaninie Mascelin and son Valner Valbuen.

Jeaninie Mascelin and son Valner Valbuen at Wesleyan Hospital, La Gonave.

We visited Wesleyan Hospital, largest on the island, and La Gonâve’s dilemma was brought home in one family’s story.  We saw a very thin older woman lying motionless, expressionless on a bed in the middle of the hospital courtyard.

Sitting next to her was a man of about 30, leaning in, occasionally tilting his head to listen as she spoke.  She was Jeaninie Mascelin and the man was her son, Valner Valbuen.  As we began to talk, a small crowd – which it transpired was her family – gathered to listen. Jeaninie then recounted her experience  in the immediate aftermath of the quake:

“I was in my house cooking.  Three of my children were there too.  I remember hearing a very loud noise and then I don’t remember anything until my neighbors were shouting at me and pulling me from where I was buried.  The whole house was down.  I knew that I couldn’t stand up and walk and I started to worry about my kids, but I was alive and they were all alive.”

The extended Valbuen family.

The extended Valbuen family: Esther Valbuen, 18; France Geneste; grandson Sander Geneste, 4; Dena Valbuen, 24; Jean Valbuen; James Exume, 1; Angeline Valbuen; Jeaninie Mascelin; Valner Valbuen, 30; Linda Valbuen, 20; Eric Exume.

Valner, her eldest son, was visiting La Gonâve at the time of the quake.  He could not get back to the city until Friday, three days later. He rushed to the camp where his mother was staying, and they took a bus to the ferry at Cariesse.  Except for when they were sitting on the bus or the boat, Valner and his brothers in law essentially carried his mother – still unable to walk — to La Gonâve.

As we began to talk, a small crowd – which it transpired was her family – gathered to listen.

He explained, “I had to go to my mother because Port-au-Prince was not safe.  The houses were down and the earthquakes were still happening.  La Gonâve is safer.”

After arriving they went directly to Wesleyan Hospital, where Jeaninie refused an indoor bed.  If another quake happened, she did not want to be buried again.  Within days, the whole family joined them, and they were now sleeping outside, some at the hospital, some in the garden of a relative.

When we met Jeaninie, she’d been lying in the courtyard, attended by Valner, for 10 days, with no diagnosis and no treatment.  She had not been able to eat or move her right leg the entire time and the staff had only been able to offer pain medicine.  A detachment of U.S. Marines and Navy doctors arrived on the island the day before with supplies, evacuating critical cases to a hospital ship in the bay.  It was likely that she would be taken there soon.

“I am afraid,” said Valner, “I don’t know what is wrong with my mother but I also don’t want to know — it may be too bad.”

Except for when they were sitting on the bus or the boat, Valner and his brothers in law essentially carried his mother – still unable to walk — to La Gonâve.

Her husband Jean surveyed the three generations of his family and looked to the future:

“We have been well-received here, with affection, but the people here have no resources to share.  We have water for now but we need to ask for food and there is not much to share.

We do have hope – we have hope because you [Concern] are here…and because I am ok and I can work.  My kids are ok and they can work too.  For now we plan to stay on La Gonâve and I plan to find a job.  All I need is a little bit of land where I will build a house.  First of course, my wide needs medical care, but I think if I can work we can make a life here.  If not and we have to go another place, we will go. But we do not plan to go back to Port-au-Prince.”