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By foot and bus, Haitians return to native towns

With the Haitian capital largely flattened by the recent earthquake, the government is encouraging its citizens to undertake a sort of reverse migration back to the countryside.
Marguerite Dorival
Marguerite Dorival, 45, right, moved from Port-au-Prince along with her family after the earthquake to Cabaret.Ricardo Arduengo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barefoot and limping from a fall suffered during last week's earthquake, Marguerite Dorival walked 20 miles from the capital to her ancestral home, leaving behind apocalyptic scenes of bodies trapped in rubble for the tranquility of her plantain-growing farm.

She doubts she will ever return, she said, sitting under a mango tree buzzing with humming birds, a dog lounging beside her.

"What is most important to me is that God gave me a chance to make it back alive. We struggled to get here, but now I'm with my family. I'm glad we are well," said Dorival, a 45-year-old farmer.

With the capital of Port-au-Prince largely flattened by the 7.0-magnitude quake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and left many more homeless, the government is encouraging Haitians to undertake a sort of reverse migration back to the countryside, where grinding poverty led them to seek out a better life in urban slums in the first place.

Authorities are offering free transportation to those who wish to leave, and so far more than 130,000 people have taken them up on the offer. Ultimately, the United Nations expects as many as many as 1 million Haitians — or one-ninth of the country's population — will flee Port-au-Prince and other damaged cities for the country.

Wrecked and weary
An untold number, like Dorival, have already left under their own power. She never did find work in Port-au-Prince after moving there a year ago so that a niece could go to nursing school.

Along with her 14-year-old son and a cousin, they lived in a single room on the second story of an apartment building that partially collapsed on Jan. 12. When the building began to crumble, Dorival clung to the metal bars of a window. But they buckled, the floor was rocking underfoot and a water tank knocked her down 28 steps of the staircase.

Dorival's 29-year-old cousin, Eliasen Saint, was buried in the rubble and is believed dead. The rest of the family escaped and spent the first night with tens of thousands other newly homeless on the downtown Champs de Mars plaza, opposite the ruins of the National Palace.

The following morning they set out on foot walking National Route 1, passing rows of downed warehouses and homes. The destruction diminished as they reached mountains with the sides hollowed out, chalky white caverns where workers excavated material to make the concrete homes that collapsed.

They trudged on with nothing to eat or drink under the burning Caribbean sun, the road choked with other refugees. Dorival particularly struggled, having hurt her hip and leg in the fall.

As the sun began to set, they turned down a dirt path lined with plantain trees that leads to the family home: a small yellow concrete building topped by a corrugated tin roof. The outhouse was no more, but the house was intact.

No rest
Nobody dares sleep indoors for fear of aftershocks, however. The family of 11 spends nights outside under a tent erected around back.

Cabaret itself sustained little damage; some homes cracked, none collapsed. Standing intact is the circular pit where the town holds the cock fights that made it famous.

Dorival, in a white lace blouse, khaki pants and mismatched socks, said she will likely spend the rest of her life in this city of 80,000.

"This is a little town. I feel more comfortable here," she said.

According to the U.N., the largest post-quake population shift has been to the Artibonite district, a rice-growing area north of the capital that is now home to at least 50,000 reverse migrants.

But the hundreds of thousands fleeing the cities are returning to a region under tremendous economic pressure: 80 percent of country residents live on less than $1 a day, according to U.N. statistics.

And Dorival noted that with Haiti's government so centralized, life will inevitably bring her back to the scene of her nightmare at least occasionally.

"Everything is concentrated in Port-au-Prince. If you need an ID card, it's in the capital. Anything you need is in the capital," she said. "But I don't know if it's ever going to be safe again."