Stress begins to take its toll in Haiti

November 28, 1993|By Harold Maass | Harold Maass,Contributing Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- At Dr. Jeanne Philippe's psychiatric clinic, the patients flock in on any day when public transportation is running and the streets are safe.

At a hotel across town, employees wonder each day whether they will be able to go home at quitting time, or whether heavy nightly shooting will force them to sleep where they work.

Kids waited a month until street violence dropped off in November and schools opened.

For two years Haiti's political crisis has disrupted life for everyone in the country, setting them on edge as the military fights an international push to return exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Doctors, business leaders and people who live in the capital's poorest neighborhoods say the stress is taking a heavy toll.

"The shooting everywhere drives you crazy," says a hotel employee who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jean. "In rich neighborhoods gunshots are just noise. Where I live you, never know whether you will be alive when the shooting stops."

In poor sections of Haiti's capital -- where Father Aristide is most popular -- residents are shut inside beginning a few hours after dark, when nightly shooting starts as soldiers and gunmen in civilian clothing patrol the streets.

Every morning, a few bodies turn up atop towering garbage heaps that have been left to accumulate by the lazy, pro-military municipal government.

"No one can sleep. Everybody argues and fights all the time. With so much pressure it is hard to get along," said Mercer Julmisse, 23, who lives with his uncle's family in a cramped, one-room shack.

In every part of town, the inconveniences sparked by on-again, off-again trade and fuel embargoes have made even simple chores such as buying gasoline, making phone calls, catching a bus or going shopping excruciatingly complicated and time-consuming.

Even those who stay out of politics and are free from direct repression often have to deal with anonymous telephone threats, said Dr. Philippe, the psychiatrist.

Although no statistics are available, doctors say the stress has brought an increase in domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and requests for Valium and other drugs to help people cope.

"[People's] routines have been disrupted. They can't go out at night," said Dr. Philippe. "Every single patient that comes here says they are afraid. Everybody is afraid of everybody."

Port-au-Prince has become a city afraid of the dark.

"Because of the power outages, it is dark. People can't see. They arenervous, afraid, and don't know who the enemy is," Dr. Philippe said.

For more than two years now, said Dr. Philippe, many people who come to see him have needed some type of prescription to get to sleep.

Dr. Reginald Boulos, director of a health center in the pro-Aristide slum of Cite Soleil, says people are in a state of panic because they see no end to the crisis, and they don't know how they are going to survive.

"People have learned to live with suffering and poverty and misery, but at least it was constant," he said. "They had resigned themselves that tomorrow was going to be like today.

"Now they don't know what tomorrow will bring. They don't know if tomorrow they will be able to work or find gas. And there is repression going on, especially in a place like Cite Soleil. They go to sleep at night knowing that somebody can come and kill them."

For the first time in her 32 years in practice, Dr. Philippe said, many parents have brought in young children suffering from hallucinations and paranoia.

She also has counted "a lot of divorces, separations and, for the first time, juvenile delinquency that resembles what you would find in the United States and Canada."

"The stress is what's killing people," said a downtown merchant. "I find myself yelling at my kids over nothing. People don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. Is this going to last?"

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