From Haiti, an earthquake survivor's tale

The Miami HeraldSeptember 6, 2010 

MARCHAND-DESSALINES, Haiti — One of the last people pulled alive from the wreckage of Haiti's massive earthquake, a 16-year-old girl who lived for 15 days in a tiny pocket under a pile of concrete rubble, still dreads sleeping inside.

Her back and arms hurt where the slabs pinned her down. She keeps to herself in her small hometown outside Marchand-Dessalines, where she returned after her release from the hospital. Even her faith has been altered: A Catholic, she now attends Protestant churches because many Catholic churches collapsed in the January disaster.

"I feel traumatized," said Darlene Etienne, now 17, from the front porch of her concrete one-bedroom home. "I don't sleep in the house. I'm afraid of the concrete. I sleep on the porch."

At least 132 people -- perhaps many more -- were rescued after days or weeks within buckled buildings, according to United Nations figures. They coped with crushed bones, rattling aftershocks, the smell of decomposing neighbors, dehydration and darkness. With nothing but time, they wondered if they had been abandoned. They contemplated death and communicated with God.

Some survivors have moved on, learning to sleep under a roof again. Others have shuffled back to the countryside, grateful for rescue but facing a hard-luck life. Some, now homeless, are busy trying to survive in hundreds of camps that popped up in the aftermath.

Haiti is still staggering, almost eight months after the 7.0 earthquake claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and made 1.5 million people homeless. Tents crowd public spaces. Rubble banks the streets. The celebrity-studded help is largely gone.

Reconstruction, once a rallying cry for the country, now comes with a question mark.

For Darlene, too, the future is uncertain. Her hopes for school and work -- a way out of her isolated village -- were crushed when the buildings came down. Her mother had sent her to Port-au-Prince as a household worker just so the girl could earn tuition. The quake hit nine days later. She won't go back now.

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