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Haiti amputees: One step forward, two steps back

Nearly four months after losing his leg in the Haiti earthquake, Schneily Similien is learning to use an artificial limb and adjusting to a new normal. His family is now living in a tent in the courtyard of their destroyed home. Like many Haitians, they focus on the present and basic tasks of living.

Four-year-old Schneily Similien is back home, living in a tent in the courtyard of the destroyed house where he was hurt in Haiti's devastating earthquake. The magnitude-7 quake sent pieces of a second-floor concrete ceiling crashing down on the child's lower left leg and foot. Nearly four months after losing his leg, he's learning to use an artificial limb and adjusting to a new normal. Here, his mother helps him take a shower with water from a metal can that once held tomatoes.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Schneily is one of perhaps thousands of amputees who survived the Jan. 12 earthquake. Early estimates put the number of amputees at 4,000 to 6,000, but that number continues to be revised and now stands at about 1,500 to 2,000 confirmed cases, according to Global Relief Technologies, a U.S. firm helping agencies track injury data. The new estimates are lower partly because some amputees may have been counted more than once in the initial chaos and partly because some may have since died from their injuries, experts say. Overall, the earthquake killed 230,000 people, injured more than 300,000 and left nearly 2 million homeless.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Schneily is learning to negotiate his country's rugged landscape. Indoors or out, Haiti offers little accommodation for the disabled, so Schneily's parents, Ducarmel, 40, and Darline, 37, want to make sure he's steady on stairs and other uneven terrain. Like most amputees, Schneily struggled with blisters and pain in the weeks after getting his new prosthetic leg, but his father says he's doing better.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Darline Similien, 37, was a kindergarten teacher until the earthquake destroyed her school. She spends her days now giving lessons to Schneily's older brothers, Scarcely, 13, and Schmeider, 10, so they won't fall behind in their studies. Despite the living conditions, Darline is fastidious about her family, making sure the children's clothes are spotless and their hair is cut and combed. Here, she dabs makeup on her face in the tent where the family now lives.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Learning to use an artificial limb is challenging even under the best conditions, says Jay Tew, the Baton Rouge prosthetics expert who crafted Schneily's new leg. But the boy is catching on quickly, although he often relies on crutches, too. Here, for instance, he puts his weight on his fake leg as he prepares to kick a ball. Being able to bear weight on the artificial limb is a milestone to mobility for amputees. So far, the clinic started in Deschapelles by Tew's employer, the Hanger Orthopedic Group, has provided limbs for more than 215 amputees since February. Handicap International, another aid agency, has assessed nearly 400 amputees and provided 70 limbs, a spokeswoman said.

Andrés Martinez Casares

The Similiens live in Leogane, the city at the epicenter of Haiti's diastrous earthquake. It's about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the shattered capital that once was home to more than 2 million people. Like other families, the Similiens must decide whether to rebuild their collapsed home. The house belongs to Darline's mother, Serge Poucely, 61, who has no money or resources for repairs.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Ducarmel Similien tries not to ponder the future for himself, his wife or their three sons. Instead, like many Haitians, he focuses on the present and the basic tasks of living. Here, he takes a brief break to play with the boys. He tells a translator he's growing more worried about finding a job after the position in Deschapelles fell through. Friends in Leogane are looking for jobs for Ducarmel, but so far, he says, they've had no luck. Ducarmel has been borrowing money to get by, with little hope of paying it back.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Stretching many meals from meager supplies is a challenge, especially with three hungry boys. The family's fare now includes cheap staples, such as noodles. Schneily and his brothers are always asking for more food, Ducarmel tells a translator. Without a job, he's having a hard time providing it.

Andrés Martinez Casares

The Similien family has managed to salvage a few belongings, such as Schneily's toy guitar and the radio Ducarmel uses to listen to music and news reports. Otherwise, they make do with what's available, including the single bed where all five family members sleep at night.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Most schools in Haiti are private or parochial, requiring tuition to attend. Government officials estimated that nearly 80 percent of schools were destroyed in the quake. Although more schools are opening amid the rubble, cost could prevent children like Schneily and his brothers from enrolling. Even before the quake, only about half of eligible children attended primary school in Haiti, according to UNICEF. Schneily visited a nearby kindergarten on a recent day, where an older student acted as tutor. But the boys' old school won't open for another month and Ducarmel told a translator he doubts they'll be able to afford even modest tuition of a few dollars a week.

Andrés Martinez Casares

Despite the hardship and worry, Schneily and his family are rebounding from the earthquake. The boy is scheduled to return to Deschapelles later this month, where prosthetics experts with Hanger will evaluate his progress. Ian Rawson, managing director of the Hopital Albert Schweitzer, has been in the United States for weeks, trying to raise awareness -- and money -- to help. The Similiens are among many families with overwhelming needs, but Rawson said he'll look again at their situation when he returns.

Andrés Martinez Casares