* Earthquake, cholera and election turmoil in single year
* Poor Caribbean country poses huge humanitarian challenge
* Pain, suffering and mourning weigh on national spirit
By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Maritza Monfort is
singing along to a Christmas carol in Creole on the radio, but
the Haitian mother of two is struggling to lift her spirits.
"I sing to ease my pain. If I think too much, I'll die,"
said Monfort, 38, one of over a million Haitians made homeless
by a January earthquake that plunged the poor, French-speaking
Caribbean nation into the most calamitous year of its history.
With a raging cholera epidemic and election turmoil heaping
more death and hardship on top of the quake devastation,
Haitians are facing an exceptionally bleak Christmas and New
Year marked by the prospect of more suffering and uncertainty.
The Jan. 12 earthquake killed more than a quarter of a
million people and snuffed out what had been some encouraging
signs of revival in the Western Hemisphere's poorest economy.
Following hard on the quake's heels like an apocalyptic
horseman, the cholera epidemic has killed more than 2,500
Haitians since mid-October and is still claiming victims daily,
confronting the United Nations-led international community with
one of its toughest ever humanitarian assistance tasks.
"Yesterday my mother almost died because she got cholera. I
had to run with her to the hospital. This Christmas is a
Christmas of misery," Monfort told Reuters as she cleaned with
soap and water the inside of the plastic tent where she lives
with her children in the Place Saint Pierre quake survivors'
camp in Port-au-Prince's hillside Petionville district.
Ranked one of the world's poorest states, Haiti has never
come close to emulating the glittering Christmas displays and
festive consumer offers to be found in richer neighbors, such
as the United States, less than two hours' flying time away.
But many Haitians still celebrated the feast of "Tonton
Noel" -- Father Christmas in Creole -- with gifts if they could
afford them and, for the very lucky, better-off minority, a
meal that could include meat, rice and Congo beans.
But only a handful of shops this year -- among those left
standing after the earthquake that reduced to rubble many
commercial and residential zones of the sprawling, chaotic
capital -- display any kind of Christmas decorations.
And there are no lights, tinsel or festive messages in
sight in the squalid crowded tent and tarpaulin camps housing
tens of thousands of earthquake survivors that carpet most of
the available open spaces in rubble-strewn Port-au-Prince.
"We cannot decorate dirty tents where we are living in
misery ... we're not in the mood to celebrate Christmas," said
Juliette Marsan, 35, another occupant of the Place Saint
Pierre, Petionville camp.
"My concern is to feed my children and I can't even do
that," she added.
THIS CHRISTMAS "WORSE THAN ANY OTHER"
Some Haitian children were lucky enough to receive
Christmas gifts handed out by former Alaska governor Sarah
Palin who helicoptered in on a lightning visit this month.
A Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group, the Pro-EMS Center
for MEDICS, is also flying in toys and food to be distributed
to nearly 2,000 Haitian orphans this Christmas.
But these will be the lucky ones.
"We're not having Christmas this year ... The children have
no toys. If we don't have money to buy them clothes, how could
we have money to buy them toys," asks Sofia Desormeau, 45, who
lives at a camp in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood.
"This year is worse than any other. It was never that good,
but at least we could eat and had a place to stay," she added.
Outgoing President Rene Preval is calling this holiday
season "the most difficult that Haiti has ever lived".
"My heart does not let me say 'Merry Christmas' because of
all the pain of the earthquake victims in the camps, and the
suffering of those sick with cholera," he told journalists in a
pre-Christmas briefing this week.
Preval, a soft-spoken agronomist who before the quake was
praised for advancing political consensus and had reawakened
some investor interest in Haiti, saw his political capital
crumble through the year as many Haitians criticized what they
saw as his low-key response to the successive calamities.
He is due to hand over to a successor in the New Year --
that is, if Organization of American States electoral experts
due next week can help untangle a heated dispute over the
confused, contested results of a Nov. 28 election.
Mustered by international luminaries like former U.S.
President Bill Clinton, donor pledges of billions of dollars
are on the table to help Haiti get back on its feet. But
without political stability, these funds could be at risk.
Eight-year-old Woodley Jean Baptiste, cradling his infant
brother Jean Ebren on his lap in the Champs de Mars survivors
camp near the presidential palace, has a more modest wish.
"I would like to buy a gift for my younger brother, but I
don't have money, and neither does my mother. If somebody gives
me a gift, I'd be very happy," he told Reuters.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jackie Frank)
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