She drifted amid throngs of screaming men, looking for her name on list after list. In a land of faint hopes, she clung to one of the faintest: that an election might release the grip of this terrible year.
Etianne Petit Frere, a 23-year-old mother, was thin as a stick, emaciated by grief. During the January earthquake, her 7-month-old daughter was crushed by a falling cinderblock as she slept in her crib. Her boyfriend disappeared soon after, leaving her to raise their two boys alone. She lost her job sewing spandex pants for $5 a day. She couldn’t afford to keep the boys in school, and neighbors mocked her as a bad mother.
Now she lives in the smallest tent in a bedraggled, lawless encampment where women are constantly raped. She barely sleeps, in perpetual fear.
Holding on to the lowest rung of subsistence, she hoped that a female president could change that.
Yet six hours after she arrived at the polling center, she still had not voted. Instead, she was getting shoved around as young men fought, cursed and made threats. No one could seem to find their name on voter lists. Poll workers didn’t seem to know what they were doing.
This was fast looking like the U.N.-staged farce many Haitians had predicted it would be. As the day wore on, thousands of would-be voters had been frustrated by the chaos and a majority of the presidential candidates were urging them to reject the results.
Petit Frere had woken up at 3 a.m. to vote in the elections for president and parliament. She sent her boys, 7 and 2, down the street to sleep at her mother’s house because she was worried about election day violence. Her neighborhood, the Cite Soleil slum, is one of the most dangerous in Haiti.
She combed her hair and pushed it back with a lace headband. She put a drop of bleach in her water before brushing her teeth to protect her from the cholera ravaging the country.
When she saw shadows moving to the polls about 4 a.m., she put all of her possessions — a few pots and clothes — in a laundry basket and trudged down the broken cobble alleys to her mother’s house, knowing thieves would take anything she left behind. She didn’t even have a door to her tent, just a cast-off Cleveland Browns blanket hanging from a stick.
As she set out, she felt a glimmer of anticipation she hadn’t felt in months. It was not just the elections she liked, but one of the candidates, a woman.
Mirlande Manigat, 70, a professor who was briefly first lady, had been leading in the polls. She had a calm, studious demeanor, wore wire-rimmed glasses and pulled her graying hair back in a bun.
And she was a mother.
A mother would understand what she went through. A mother would understand how hard it is for all Haitian mothers. A mother couldn’t leave her children behind like her cowardly boyfriend.
Her mind never drifted far from what her life had become.
Petit Frere didn’t even have enough money to bury her little girl, Milda, properly. She put her in a cardboard box and paid some men to dig a hole in the swampy field nearby. She doesn’t even know where she’s buried.
This is why she can’t eat, why she is only 75 pounds — this, and seeing her boys linger listlessly around the tent while other children go to school in their little uniforms.
She hoped that, as a professor, Manigat would start a system of free schools.
Petit Frere arrived at the voting center in the courtyard of a school. U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police stood guard at the gate. When it opened at 6, she went from door to door scanning the lists for her name, getting pushed back by aggressive men. All she could find were names that started with letters from A to F.
After a few hours, she was getting light-headed. She needed to eat. She stood against a wall and talked to friends waiting to wade into the chaos again.
She showed her voting card to a supervisor; her picture didn’t look like her — her face was so full then. She asked the woman whether she knew where the names starting with P were. The supervisor shrugged and told her she couldn’t even find her own name.
Her friends pointed out where she could cast a provisional ballot without her name being on the list. She stood in line behind a young man with dreadlocks and glassy eyes.
Another man was arguing that he should be able to vote without his voting card. A group of men surged forward screaming obscenities at the man at the desk.
“This … isn’t right! Get out of there, you idiot. You got missing teeth!”
“I’m not moving! I’m not scared of you.”
Petit Frere just looked off, bouncing among them like a leaf in a storm, deep in thought in her own world.
A few U.N. soldiers came to try to resolve the situation, but realized they couldn’t and walked away.
Finally, Petit Frere showed the person at the desk her card and asked whether she could have a ballot. Without even looking, the man said her name was not on the list. She said she had heard she could cast a provisional ballot. He muttered something and grudgingly handed her the ballot.
She sat at a desk with a bent piece of cardboard for privacy. In no particular hurry, in the screaming chaos, she wrote an X under Manigat’s name, and then picked two candidates for parliament in the same party. She gently folded the three papers and dropped each one in a separate box.
When she got outside, she realized a man had stepped on her plastic flip-flop and broken the strap. These were her only shoes. She walked back to her tent on the broken cobble with a bare foot and fading hopes.