Deep in the Haitian countryside, three hours from teeming, quake-torn Port-au-Prince, Moise “Kiki” Joachin shares a two-room wooden shack with his older sister and younger brother, their mother, her parents, and four or five other relatives. Coconut and banana trees grow in the dirt yard, but a recent flood has wiped out the family’s garden. So they buy food from vendors down the road, a strain on their minuscule budget.
“They’re really struggling,” says photojournalist Allison Shelley, who tracked down the family in November for Reader’s Digest.
“The adults share a couple of mattresses on the floor, and the kids sleep on piles of clothes and comforters.” Even so, the Joachins are better off than many in this beleaguered country, where more than one million people still live in tent cities and more than 2,000 have died in a cholera outbreak. An estimated 100,000 children were left orphaned by last year’s earthquake, but Kiki, luckily, is not one of them.
Even around his parents, however, he is a timid boy, given to one-word answers, still struggling to find his place in these new surroundings. Asked which he likes better, the quiet village of Depale—where he has spent the past 12 months—or his bustling hometown, eight-year-old Kiki answers without hesitation: “Port-au-Prince.”
That’s where he was January 12, 2010, when a massive earthquake struck Haiti. As the ground began convulsing, Kiki’s mother, Gracia Raymond, ran from the porch of their apartment building in search of her five-year-old son, David, who was outside fetching water. Bloodied by falling cinder blocks, she began frantically burrowing through the crumbled concrete toward her five other kids. She could make no headway.
Kiki’s father, Odinel, was trapped in his office at the Haitian customs service. It would take him two days to find his wife. When she told him that five of their children were buried in the wreckage of their home, “I asked a neighbor to chop off my head,” Odinel recalls, “because I had no reason to live.”
For eight days, Kiki was buried beneath the ruins of his apartment building. He and Sabrina, 11, huddled in a tiny space under tons of rubble, with no food or water, barely able to move; nearby lay Titite, four, and the bodies of their little sisters Yeye, nine, and Didine, 15 months.
“When our house fell down, I thought I was going to die,” Kiki recalls. On their fifth day in the ruins, he says, “I saw my brother die right next to me.” He remembers weeping as Sabrina covered little Titite with her T-shirt.
Then on the eighth day, a neighbor rummaging for her possessions heard Kiki’s faint cries for water. Two firefighters, New Yorker Chris Dunic and Virginian Brad Antons, spent the next four hours cautiously drilling through the debris and finally reached Kiki and his sister.
“The hardest thing was getting the kid to come up,” says Dunic, who was wearing a helmet and a face mask and wielding a jackhammer. “We were scaring him.” Finally, Kiki’s neighbor reassured him. Dunic reached down and handed the boy to her.
Content continues below ad
As Kiki was raised from the hole, he broke into a blazing grin and flung out his arms in a victory gesture.
In the midst of a disaster that killed 220,000 people, Sabrina and Kiki’s rescue was a welcome bit of good news. “I smiled because I was free,” Kiki told reporters. “I smiled because I was alive.”
With his family safe in Gracia’s home village of Depale, Odinel haunts the streets of the capital, camping under a tarp near the ruins where his other children remain interred. His job at the customs office has been cut back to three days a week; on his days off, he returns to Depale when he can afford the bus fare.
Kiki, Sabrina, and David walk three miles each morning to a school called Ecole Renovation, in the town of Jacmel. In Port-au-Prince many kids still haven’t resumed their studies because most schools were destroyed by the quake. “I like school, even the homework,” Kiki says, though the ordeal left him and his siblings so distressed that they failed all their classes last semester.
Like most schools in Haiti, Ecole Renovation charges tuition, nearly $100 a year per child. Unable to keep up with the payments, Odinel owes $400 and worries over how he will settle the debt. “We’re not living very well,” he says, “but I want my kids to continue to go to school. Afterward, they can learn a trade—any one they want.”
Kiki tells adults he hopes to be a mechanic when he grows up, or a truck driver, or perhaps an engineer so he can help rebuild his shattered country. But even talking about his dreams, Kiki is subdued. The joy that transfigured his face last January has seldom returned, his family says. Often he is silent and withdrawn.
Recently, however, his teacher says, he has been opening up in class, talking a little more, and trying his best to make progress. Kiki’s country, meanwhile, has barely begun to dig itself out of the rubble. At press time, just $897 million of the $5.75 billion in reconstruction funds promised by 130 countries had been delivered to Haiti. “The money isn’t getting to these people,” says rescuer Dunic, who has been following the situation through news reports. “They’re no better off than they were right after the quake.”
As the delays stretch on, families such as Kiki’s face choices that people in richer nations rarely have to contemplate. Food or school? Tent in the city or shack in the country? Stay with your loved ones or travel to look for work?
“My dream is to start a business for my family,” says Odinel, “maybe selling rice and beans, to be able to put another room on the house so the kids can sleep better.” Meanwhile, he and Gracia are grateful for what they have. “It was a miracle,” she says. “God didn’t want us to lose all of the children.”