PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Maritza Monfort is singing along to a Christmas carol in Creole on the radio, but the Haitian mother of two is struggling to lift her spirits.
“I sing to ease my pain. If I think too much, I’ll die,” said Monfort, 38, one of over a million Haitians made homeless by a January earthquake that plunged the poor, French-speaking Caribbean nation into the most calamitous year of its history.
With a raging cholera epidemic and election turmoil heaping more death and hardship on top of the quake devastation, Haitians are facing an exceptionally bleak Christmas and New Year marked by the prospect of more suffering and uncertainty.
The January 12 earthquake killed more than a quarter of a million people and snuffed out what had been some encouraging signs of revival in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest economy.
Following hard on the quake’s heels like an apocalyptic horseman, the cholera epidemic has killed more than 2,500 Haitians since mid-October and is still claiming victims daily, confronting the United Nations-led international community with one of its toughest ever humanitarian assistance tasks.
“Yesterday my mother almost died because she got cholera. I had to run with her to the hospital. This Christmas is a Christmas of misery,” Monfort told Reuters as she cleaned with soap and water the inside of the plastic tent where she lives with her children in the Place Saint Pierre quake survivors’ camp in Port-au-Prince’s hillside Petionville district.
Ranked one of the world’s poorest states, Haiti has never come close to emulating the glittering Christmas displays and festive consumer offers to be found in richer neighbors, such as the United States, less than two hours’ flying time away.
But many Haitians still celebrated the feast of “Tonton Noel” — Father Christmas in Creole — with gifts if they could afford them and, for the very lucky, better-off minority, a meal that could include meat, rice and Congo beans.
But only a handful of shops this year — among those left standing after the earthquake that reduced to rubble many commercial and residential zones of the sprawling, chaotic capital — display any kind of Christmas decorations.
And there are no lights, tinsel or festive messages in sight in the squalid crowded tent and tarpaulin camps housing tens of thousands of earthquake survivors that carpet most of the available open spaces in rubble-strewn Port-au-Prince.
“We cannot decorate dirty tents where we are living in misery ... we’re not in the mood to celebrate Christmas,” said Juliette Marsan, 35, another occupant of the Place Saint Pierre, Petionville camp.
“My concern is to feed my children and I can’t even do that,” she added.
Some Haitian children were lucky enough to receive Christmas gifts handed out by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin who helicoptered in on a lightning visit this month.
A Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group, the Pro-EMS Center for MEDICS, is also flying in toys and food to be distributed to nearly 2,000 Haitian orphans this Christmas.
But these will be the lucky ones.
“We’re not having Christmas this year ... The children have no toys. If we don’t have money to buy them clothes, how could we have money to buy them toys,” asks Sofia Desormeau, 45, who lives at a camp in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood.
“This year is worse than any other. It was never that good, but at least we could eat and had a place to stay,” she added.
Outgoing President Rene Preval is calling this holiday season “the most difficult that Haiti has ever lived.”
“My heart does not let me say ‘Merry Christmas’ because of all the pain of the earthquake victims in the camps, and the suffering of those sick with cholera,” he told journalists in a pre-Christmas briefing this week.
Preval, a soft-spoken agronomist who before the quake was praised for advancing political consensus and had reawakened some investor interest in Haiti, saw his political capital crumble through the year as many Haitians criticized what they saw as his low-key response to the successive calamities.
He is due to hand over to a successor in the New Year — that is, if Organization of American States electoral experts due next week can help untangle a heated dispute over the confused, contested results of a November 28 election.
Mustered by international luminaries like former President Bill Clinton, donor pledges of billions of dollars are on the table to help Haiti get back on its feet. But without political stability, these funds could be at risk.
Eight-year-old Woodley Jean Baptiste, cradling his infant brother Jean Ebren on his lap in the Champs de Mars survivors camp near the presidential palace, has a more modest wish.
“I would like to buy a gift for my younger brother, but I don’t have money, and neither does my mother. If somebody gives me a gift, I’d be very happy,” he told Reuters.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jackie Frank