John Drescher

Drescher: Reporter, a UNC graduate, says Haitians are strong, hopeful

Reporter Jacqueline Charles was two months out of UNC-Chapel Hill in 1994 when the Miami Herald sent her to Haiti to help cover the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide was the first democratically elected president of Haiti after the fall of the father-son Duvalier dictatorship. But Aristide was ousted during a military coup. When he returned through the support of the Clinton administration, it was a big story and even more so for the Herald, as Haiti is only 650 miles from Miami.

Charles was young for such an important assignment – but known to her editors in Miami. She started working at the paper as a 14-year-old high school intern and often placed phone calls for reporters calling Haiti; her mother is Haitian and Charles speaks Creole.

After the devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, in Haiti, Charles was among the first foreign journalists to arrive in the country. She was the first to report that President Rene Preval had survived the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, which killed 300,000 people. She spent much of the next 15 months covering the disaster, including writing about the funeral of her cousin Hérard Aneas.

As she reported among the bodies, Charles thought she understood the Haitians’ pain. “But I really didn’t – until I heard my own mother’s wail,” she wrote in 2010.

Charles recently returned to Haiti to cover the fifth anniversary of the earthquake for the Herald, our sister McClatchy paper. A memorial service was held where many of the dead were buried. “As a married, retired father of two, who had lost all of his worldly possessions, told me, ‘Only when you die will you forget douze Janvier (the 12th of January),’ ” Charles wrote in an email from Haiti.

To us, covering the earthquake in Haiti almost was like covering a local story because so many North Carolinians have ties to Haiti and volunteer there. In the Triangle, dozens of churches and aid groups support orphanages, schools and clinics.

The recovery from the earthquake continues. Of Haiti’s 10 million people, about 40 percent are unemployed. After the disaster, about 1.5 million people lived in tents. Charles says that number is now about 80,000.

“The recovery has been very slow,” she wrote. “Lots of ambitious promises have not been filled.” Among Haiti’s political challenges is that local elections have not been held for several years.

Duvalier nostalgia

Charles covered the October funeral of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the brutal dictator who had succeeded his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The younger Duvalier fled the country in 1986, only to return from France in 2011 to “help.” Haitians were divided.

“This is a young country, so when JCD arrived back in Haiti (I was here), he was greeted by thousands at the airport,” Charles wrote. “There was great nostalgia about him because of what he represented in his era: secured, clean streets; 24-hour electricity; jobs.

“But to those who lived the dictatorship, there was no nostalgia but rather a reliving of the horror. They wanted justice. Over time those who revered him came to realize he would not be returning to power and he became an average citizen – though he moved around here like a celebrity – while his victims continued to see him as a despot who needed to pay for his crimes.”

Charles said Haiti is complex. “Seldom are things what they appear,” she wrote.

More than anything, she said, Haiti needs stability. She finds the people to be friendly, humble, welcoming and grateful. “They are strong,” she wrote, “because they always have hope tomorrow will be different, even when the odds seem against them.”

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