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Humanitarian Aid on the move #7, special issue: Haïti

Haiti’s future will be decided by its creative children.
Daniel Derivois

What have the children of Haiti seen of the disasters which have devastated their country? What do professionals understand of their methods of expressing what they have experienced. Child victims are not always where we see them to be. There is a gap between what is seen and what is shown. It is in this gap that creation, the field of new possibilities, takes place. Haiti’s future will be decided by its creative children.

I am of those who do not deem it necessary to tell a secret in public to feel better”. B. Cyrulnik, 1993.

 A clinician’s perspective

What did they see? This is the question I asked myself when, in July and October 2010, I saw vulnerable children crying, fussing, playing, laughing and running in their everyday post-earthquake lives in the streets and camps of Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Léogâne, Petit-Goâve and Gonaïves. Such a question is not, as a rule, of great interest to a clinician who focuses on what has been “experienced” rather than what has been “seen”. When a clinician works on what has been “seen”, it is in the way it has been transformed and taken in by the “patient” rather than what was originally “seen” in its raw, initial form which is lost forever and no longer accessible.

But the earthquake of 12 January 2010 was such a powerful event that I came back to the question several times. What did they see in those collapsed, shattered buildings? Bodies broken by the reinforced concrete? What did they see on television ? What did they see of the emergency relief operations or the international aid operations? As I gradually realised that the answer was impossible to answer, it transformed in my head. It no longer concerned only the children, but extended to all those around them: the humanitarians, the journalists, the researchers, the politicians, etc. whether locals or foreigners. What did they see? Preoccupied by their mission, their objective, their subject or their field of action, they work with the children, carrying television cameras, cameras, note pads, food or health supplies, etc. Most of them work in emergency mode, taking snapshots of particular moments, supporting and accompanying everyday events. Others step a little further back. They take into consideration the lengthy processes involved in treating such events. The children are shown on screens, in meetings, in the pages of newspapers or in books which try to make what the children and professionals saw and went through understandable.

I then asked myself the same question - “what did I see?” What I saw – and more specifically what I felt – was a gap. Between what was shown and what was hidden. Between the present and the actualised. Between the close up and the subtle details. Between what was said and what was half said. Children are not always where we see them. The space and time of their experiences do not necessarily correspond to the time and place where we meet them. The clinician tries to adopt a perspective which is both in the present, but also withdrawn, deep, cross-historical, cross-geographical and cross-generational. He or she focuses on the “transitional space” or the “intermediary area of experience” (Winnicott, 1975), where cultural experience, creation and creativity in general takes place. This is a place which escapes the naked eye of emergency relief and international aid. It is a “potential space” which requires a certain level of mental and emotional availability and the adoption of an off-centre position to assess the transformation of experience and the emergence of possibilities.