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12 April 2024

Terrifying rumors torment Haiti on anniversary


The latest news in Haiti's Trazeli tent camp? A new earthquake is imminent. Yes and politicians are spreading cholera.

A year after nearly a quarter of a million people died in a magnitude seven earthquake, unfounded rumor is one of the few commodities Haiti has in good supply.

In Trazeli, home to about 4,000 people on sun-scorched waste ground outside the town of Tabarre, three actors reduced an audience to tears of laughter as they depicted the ignorance afflicting many in a country unable to make sense of what happened.

The actors, Haitians working for the French non-profit Haiti en Scene, depicted a Rastafarian claiming marijuana will ward off cholera, a fraudulent voodoo priestess, a slimy politician, and other out-sized characters.

The crazier the scenes became, the more the homeless Haitians, some 60 of them cramming into a sweltering tent, laughed.

Yet nothing -- not even the story of a man tricking another into handing over his wife and house by warning of an impending earthquake -- really seemed that outlandish.

"They totally understand it. People are living this," one of the actors, 22-year-old Samuel Andre, said.

Facing deep political uncertainty after disputed presidential elections, this is a country where rumors can be deadly serious.

Frightened people will change their daily plans on being told, with absolute certainty, that another earthquake is due in a certain place.

In the past weeks, mobs stoned, hacked to death and immolated 45 people, mostly voodoo priests, accused of using magic to trigger a cholera outbreak that has killed 3,650 people and sickened 170,000.

Others believe "politicians caused the cholera, that it even came with the elections, to stop the elections or influence them," Andre said.

Haitians have a reputation for being superstitious. The dark arts of voodoo and religious fervor are deeply ingrained.

But the power of rumor in this hilly Caribbean nation can be explained more simply by the scarcity of objective information, particularly in the tent camps still housing more than a million people.

In Trazeli, women cook over wood fires and children grow up without school. Toilets are covered in putrid, fly-blown piles of feces.

There's almost no electricity. Or television. Newspapers never come. The Internet is a fantasy.

For people surviving in these medieval conditions, Haiti's leaders, still squabbling over who won the post-quake election, might as well inhabit another planet.

"The election was meaningless for us. We've never seen a single candidate," said Yves Raymond Emmanuel, 43, a camp leader.

International aid workers speeding between projects in Land Cruisers seem equally remote. One irony-laden segment of the theater performance was titled: "Right after God come the whites."

Bertrand Labarre, the Frenchman behind Haiti en Scene, said Haitians have questions, but no one whom they can ask. So his theater groups teach them to think for themselves.

"People have no one to believe in, so rumors spread. It's all based on fear," said Labarre, 42.

"They want answers. But if you ask 'Why did it happen?' then you open yourself to all sorts of beliefs -- like the earthquake being caused by a secret American weapon, or a nuclear test, or the will of Christ, or because 'we were bad.' What you really need to ask is: 'What do we do now?'"

As the theater audience slipped away under a fierce sun, Duquenson Royer, an evangelical pastor, was walking into camp.

He agreed that Haitians "don't really know what's going on." He agreed that wild rumors are rife.

And he said he believed them all.

The January 12, 2010 earthquake was brought by God "to bless us. He wants to make Haiti a different place," Pastor Royer said.

There was more.

"Something will happen to Haiti, something worse," he said, "something much worse."