Haiti earthquake: one more horror for children of disaster

Ed Pilkington visits an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and finds new fears where things were already bad before 'le catastrophe'

There are only three books to be found at the Foyer de Sion orphanage in Port-au-Prince, serving the 18 children cared for here. There's a textbook titled Vive Les Maths! and another, Histoire d'Haiti.

The third is a children's picture book in English called Prayer for a Child. It's a poem with illustrations, and begins: "Bless the milk and bless this bread; Bless this soft and waiting bed."

The book is lying on a rusty bunk bed, with a thin, dirty mattress on top. There is no milk or bread. Since the ­earthquake a week ago the organisers of the orphanage have run through their last $100 and are down to emergency rations dished out to the children – one meal a day.

The underlying truth of the disaster of Haiti is that things were already bad before "le catastrophe". Many of these children were orphaned by past ­disasters – the ­hurricanes of 2008, the deadly storms of 2004 and 2005, the almost yearly flooding – or as a result of waves of ­political exile in which adults have fled, leaving their children.

In the orphanage there are no toys, not one. The rooms are virtually bare. In the bedroom with the picture book the only decoration on its grey and peeling walls is a thin frieze that runs around the top of the walls, depicting a range of ­US sports – a baseball bat, an American ­football, a basketball hoop. The ­American theme is pertinent. About a couple of hours before we arrived a team from a Mormon church arrived to take 10 children to Salt Lake City, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The children, aged from two to 15, had already begun the process of adoption, but after the earthquake the normal bureaucratic hurdles of visas, passports and adoption papers were brushed aside.

Milane Pomelus, 15, whose parents died when she was little, was one of the children who were not among the chosen few. A ­manager of the orphanage tells us she had not been picked by any American adoptive parents. So here she stays. At first she tells us, defensively perhaps, that she doesn't want to go to America in any case. But under gentle questioning she changes her tune: "I'm afraid to stay in Haiti. There is too many bad things happening here. I want to go to America."

We talk to Wideline Fils-Aime, a girl of nine with braided hair and crooked teeth and an electric smile wearing a check dress and dirty pink crocs. Or rather we try to talk to her, as she is paralysed by shyness.

Our translator asks her how her ­parents died. She writhes and flashes that electric smile, and says ­nothing. A while later, we try again. She stands in front of us like a soldier in the parade ground, stiff-spined and at ­attention. What happened to you in the earthquake?


Was there a lot of noise?

"Some of the children were injured," she says at last.

Were you hurt?

"I lost many friends."

Are you afraid?

She nods.


"There are too many people dying."

According to the UN there were 380,000 children in orphanages and homes in Haiti before the quake. Nobody knows how much that figure has increased, but the number of ­additions to this miserable club must run into the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of children now in the care of relatives, or abandoned and alone.

Groups from all around the world have swooped in, seizing the ­opportunity to help, as well as spotting a main chance, perhaps, to acquire ­adoptable kids in demand in the west. Here is the Dutch government ­dispatching a planeload of immigration officials to evacuate 100 children already in the process of adoption by Dutch parents. Here is the governor of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell, travelling to Haiti and bringing back 53 children from the Bresma orphanage in the city. And there is the Catholic Church in Miami announcing that it will repeat its 1960 display of muscle that saw 14,000 children taken from Cuba to the US.

But with every day that passes the contrast between those who go and those who stay grows more ­overwhelming. About 30 of the orphans from Foyer de Sion have been transferred to the Mormon church in Petionville about a mile away. About 700 people, rising to 1,000 at night, are living there in tents and on blankets. They have each been given a pink ticket that grants them entry into and out of the grounds – a necessary provision as the church has reached capacity and is now turning away all-comers.

A couple of two-year-old orphans sit on a mat at the end of the church garden. They haven't eaten yet today. Although food and water has been donated by the Brazilian government, the Mormon church is running out of both.

Back at the orphanage there are a couple of bags of rice and beans in a cupboard and a few sweet potatoes in the fridge. Outside, a large pot of vegetable gruel is bubbling away over coals.

Are you hungry, we ask Wisline Etienne, 13. She scrunches up her tummy, grimaces and says: "No." No one believes her.

Pascale Mardy, the bishop's sister, is in charge today of the orphanage. What can she do, what can she say to the children to make them feel better? She pauses. "I don't know what to tell the children. I'm afraid myself."


Ed Pilkington in Port-au-Prince

The GuardianTramp

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