From the Quake to the Cup
By Mariana Bazo
Nearly 300 Haitians are stuck in Inapari, a tiny Peruvian village on the border with Brazil. They are victims of the 2010 earthquake in their country and traveled weeks chasing their dream of simply getting a job. They believe that in Brazil the upcoming World Cup is creating great opportunities.
Some 3,000 kilometers after leaving home, they reached the Brazilian border only to find it shut to them, closed to stop the wave of their compatriots that began to arrive after the disaster.
They wait in the middle of the jungle and understand little. They’ve bet everything on this chance, selling or just abandoning all their belongings back home to make it this far. They now have nothing in Haiti and can’t reach their destination, nor can they return. They even asked me why they’re not allowed to cross the border, assuring that they are good workers and are willing to work hard to live better.
Inapari is a lowland village of immigrants from the Andean highlands. A few years back it was opened up to the world with the construction of the Interoceanic Highway uniting the Pacific with the Atlantic across Peru and Brazil. With that road came many things good and bad. First came illegal logging. Then came illegal mining and smuggling. But at the same time Brazil and Peru are now united, commerce is more fluid and Machu Picchu is now only 12 hours away by road.
Today, separated from Brazil by only a bridge, Inapari is a village that breathes a climate of change. It is only eight blocks long and has 2,000 inhabitants who are adapting to their new world. Hostals and restaurants are preparing to receive more tourists, and the residents are more receptive of strange visitors who arrive on the highway that to them is nothing if not a luxury. Their new globalized world brought them a flow of Haitian migrants, as well as a taste of the world’s problems.
Inapari is jungle and heat. It’s Peru’s remote corner. The country ends there and runs into Brazil and Bolivia, the perfect route for Haitian emigrants. Lately it’s become the resting place for many dreams.
I had come here five years earlier with Peru’s transportation minister to witness the beginning of the highway’s construction. Inapari was just a place to briefly stop to get a first look at Brazil through the windshield. Now it’s relatively modern, with new homes and an excellent soccer field on a site that was once covered by virgin jungle. Now on the international bridge where Peruvians and Brazilians can cross freely there are Brazilian federal policemen watching out for Haitians.
The Haitians only know that they’ve been stuck in this village for the past month, forced to sleep in a church and spend their time roaming the few streets. They try to be interactive with the locals. They have no money, eat from a common pot, and are always covered with flies and skin infections. They’ve come this far and wouldn’t turn back for the world.
So, amidst all this, one afternoon I found myself waiting in an Internet cabin for anyone to disconnect from the network so I could have enough bandwidth to transmit a photo. Modernity is slow to arrive in Inapari. Public utilities are a disaster, among them the Internet. The booths were full of Haitians reading the news and looking at Facebook. Also online were Brazilian and Peruvian highway workers, and doctors from the local medical post. Everyone with any interest in the outside world was in the cabin.
One Haitian translated the news in Creole and French, another asked me questions in English with the help of gestures. A Brazilian tourist entered speaking in Portuguese. When the owners of the Internet cabin began speaking together in Quechua I suddenly felt like I was in the Tower of Babel, but in the end everyone understood each other.
One Haitian named Antony was telling me how he wanted to go to Brazil because he loves soccer, and that he’s sure there must be a lot of work because they are building stadiums. He was a university student just one year away from graduating, but the earthquake did away with all that and his dreams. Now he says with a smile that he sold everything he had left in Haiti, and that he can’t turn back.
Every five minutes I was asked the same thing. “Do you know when we can pass?”
Another said to me, “But you are a journalist. What have you heard in Lima? What are they saying? When are we going to pass?” I didn’t have an answer. Nobody in Lima spoke of Haitians stuck on a border 3,000 kilometers from home.
A few were exhausted and aggressive when I tried to photograph them. It was understandable. They said, “No photos,” and I accepted and spoke to them with the camera turned away. But others were just the opposite, and I even received a few offers of marriage so they could come to Lima with me. “There must be work there,” they said. “Are you married?”
In the village square they played dominoes and cards, and walked in circles. The church was their refuge and the pews their beds. Some looked at the cross and remarked, “God will help us.”
Peru is also a seismic country and Inapari now a town of migrants. The residents gathered to extend a hand to the new visitors from far away. In any other place they would have been considered invaders, but here the villagers helped them with what little they had.
On my last day there there was a big soccer match, Haitians vs Brazilians from the town of Assis across the border. The Haitians looked like a ragtag team with borrowed shoes and no uniforms. One of them asked me to take his photo to post on his Facebook page. They played and lost, but the match made them forget their long wait, for a moment. Some looked at the field, while others looked towards Brazil. The field is only a few trees away from the border.
I returned home after only three days, mosquito-bitten and thinner, wondering if anyone was concerned about these Haitians stuck on the border for a whole month.