Haiti: rocked to its foundations

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I am sitting on the verandah of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, sipping coffee and looking out over its tranquil gardens. So idyllic is the scene, you could easily imagine that nothing much has changed here for a century – or at least not since the 1960s, when this white-painted landmark was known as "the Greenwich Village of the tropics" and hosted the likes of Truman Capote, Mick Jagger and Graham Greene. The Oloffson even inspired the hotel that appears in Greene's 1966 novel The Comedians. "With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house," wrote Greene, referring to the cartoonist who gave rise to the Addams Family, "but in the sunlight or when the lights went on among the palms, it seemed fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy-tales."
one of Haiti’s ‘gingerbread houses’ Endangered … one of Haiti’s ‘gingerbread houses’ Photograph: Randolph Langenbach

This is not the image of Haiti we are used to – not since the earthquake that struck a year ago today. But you don't have to wander far from the Oloffson to find ruins, rubble and tented cities. The presidential palace is still a collapsed heap, untouched since it became the defining image of the disaster. There are 230,000 dead to mourn, up to 300,000 buildings damaged, and 1.5 million people still without homes. But Port-au-Prince is at least back on its feet: the port, airport and phone network are working again, the potholed streets are clogged with traffic and lined with vendors, and talk is no longer of emergency relief but of reconstruction – and the conspicuous lack of it....

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