With state symbols gone, a sense of panic starts to grow
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
The young man slowly climbed the flagpole that still stood guard over the crumbled presidential palace, reaching up to snatch what was left of the flag, a dusty red and blue cloth.
For Haitians, the red and blue -- or black and blue, depending on the presidency -- flying atop the National Palace has always been a source of pride, for better or for worse, dictatorship or democracy.
Now the tattered flag has been replaced with one at half staff. But the parliament and prime minister's office are gone. So are the ministries of public works, finance, health, interior, justice, education and foreign affairs.
There is no longer a tax administration building or a palace of justice. The capital's main prison crumbled and the prisoners escaped.
These emblems of power all came tumbling down in Haiti's devastating earthquake.
`JUDGES ARE BURIED'
``All of the symbols of this country are gone,'' Michele Montas, widow of Haiti's most famous journalist, Jean-Dominique, said days after surveying the damage. ``The irony of life is that the prisoners are all out on the streets, and the judges are buried underneath the rubble.''
The loss of all 15 ministry headquarters in this pen-and-paper society, where handwritten records are more common than computerized archives, represents the possible loss of valuable information -- and money. The taxation collection office, for example, held the records of who owns all the nation's properties, including those owned by the state.
But equally as important as the loss of records is the disappearance of the buildings themselves and the erasure of Haitian history and the seat of government.
``It's as if the state has been dealt a blow to the heart,'' said Justice Minister Paul Denis, who still isn't sure how he managed to escape his office before the ministry of justice collapsed, killing many of his staffers and key advisors.
Denis and his fellow 16 ministers, including the prime minister as well as Haitian President René Préval, now meet inside a bare-bones police headquarters where news conferences are held under a mango tree, discussions with the international community are convened in a dusty courtyard and ministerial strategy sessions are carried out in a hallway.
All this adds to the frustrations of quake victims who are openly questioning the workings of their government and president in the wake of the earthquake.
`WHERE IS THE STATE?'
``With the palace not being there anymore, there is a gap in the perception of the people. Where is the state?'' first lady Elisabeth Delatour Préval said. ``Visually, people cannot see what they used to recognize as being the symbol of the state and that has generated some sort of panic.''
Not just panic, but a state of statelessness.
``Once there is no palace, there is no country. And once there is no country, we might as well be done because there is no governance,'' said Marie Ronnie Volcy, 23, who now lives in a tent camp across from the palace. ``We have to help ourselves with whatever we need.''
Not helping matters is the sight of U.S. Marines landing in helicopters on the grounds of the landmark National Palace, which was designed by Haitian architect Georges Baussan and constructed between 1915 and 1920. A structural engineer inspecting buildings at the request of the government said the reinforced concrete palace -- even with its three collapsed dome -- can be saved.
This deeply religious country also has lost its Notre Dame Cathedral, where presidents receive their blessings after inauguration, and the Holy Trinity Episcopalian Cathedral. Even the church of Haiti's patron saint, Notre Dame of Perpetual Help, is gone.
Along the Champs de Mars, Haiti's most famous public square, the talk is of rebuilding, not just the structures but a nation. Primose Delva, 53, lost two children and a home in the quake but remains resolute. ``We are broken, and we are bruised,'' she said. ``What little there was of our economy is gone. But Haiti has not perished. It is still here.''
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