Fleets of buses begin ferrying people free of charge out of Port-au-Prince and into the countryside, where food is more plentiful and shelter certain.

Haitians are used at the best of times to queuing up for things; waiting is, after all, the first cousin of poverty. But in the nine days since the earthquake struck, they have become experts.

All around Port-au-Prince there are crowds of Haitians queuing up. Outside the U.S. embassy, they jostle to present their credentials in an almost certainly fruitless search for work. Wherever aid trucks are parked they line up, buckets at the ready, for water and food. At the U.N. building they gather in the hope of securing plastic sheets to turn into makeshift tents.

Now the streets of Port-au-Prince are witness to a new form of waiting, as Haitians in their thousands scramble to board buses to quit the stricken city. An exodus is under way. The initial monstrous shock of the earthquake that left the three million residents of the capital dazed and paralysed has faded, replaced by an urgent instinct to flee.

Fleets of buses laid on by the government have begun ferrying people free of charge out of Port-au-Prince and into the countryside, where food is more plentiful and shelter certain. The government plans to create refugee villages outside the crushed capital, each housing 10,000 survivors, up to a total of about 400,000.

Many thousands more homeless residents of the capital are heading east by bus, to the border of the Dominican Republic, aiming to cross into a happier nation. At the ports there are similar scenes of people playing out their dreams of leaving. Scarce boats are overloaded, reports the Haiti Press Network, with refugees heading for Cuba, the Bahamas and Miami, while the U.S. military is preparing its base in Guantanamo to receive up to 2,000.

In the central square in Petionville, a heavily damaged suburb of the capital, more than 100 people had been waiting since dawn for the arrival of the government buses. Among the crowd was Geffard Guilene, a 21-year-old secretarial student, who is queuing for the bus to Jacmel. She had with her three shopping bags packed with clothes and shoes for her and her brother, who was coming with her. "We've kept it very simple," she said.

The beautiful 19th century town of Jacmel has also been badly hit by the quake, but Ms Guilene's family home lies in a village outside the town. There she will find her parents and old friends, a bed to sleep in, and food grown in the family's tiny plot.

That will be a stark improvement in the conditions of the past week. In Petionville she has been packed in among hundreds of homeless people, living in the square under those plastic sheets. "I can't stay here any more," she said. "It's too hot in the square, there are too many people."

A man who had been listening to us talk broke into the conversation. "We are living like animals here," he said. "We are having to pee beside our beds, and that's not healthy. The smell is awful, infection is setting into the wounds of the injured; the kids are in trauma."

Across the town the pattern is the same. In Delmas district, Arilien Georges, 42, waited with his family for a bus to Gonaives, north of Port-au-Prince. The school where he taught chemistry collapsed and he was taking his wife, three children and two cousins to his parents' house. "We have nothing left. It's our turn to run," he said.

The exodus is the story of modern Haiti, written backwards. Since the 1980s, the demographic flow has been from the country to towns, induced in part by disastrous U.S. trade policies that flooded the country with cheap subsidised rice, destroying Haiti's agriculture.

This urban flow partly explains why the earthquake has been so monumental in its impact. The capital, a city that should by rights house no more than 400,000, grew in 30 years to three million, packed into substandard houses on unstable hillsides.

Now the flow is in reverse. Haitians like Ms Guilene are returning to the rural homes in which they were born and where they grew up. Will this be the start of a new demographic trend of back-to-the-land?

Not if Ms Guilene is typical. She says she plans to stay in the village outside Jacmel for a month, two at most, before she returns to Port-au-Prince. "There's nothing for me in the countryside. Work is in the city," she said. Her intentions spell danger. Is Haiti about to repeat the errors of its past? Will Port-au-Prince bulldoze away the rubble, and then get straight back to building substandard houses on unstable hillsides? In the central square in Petionville, the temperature is rising. People are queuing, but there's less patience. "I'm in trouble. My wife is dead. I must get out of the city. Can you help?" a man in a brown T-shirt said. "Sir! Sir! What can you do for me? I'm in trouble," said another.

A third man approached us and opened his wallet to show us his badge that told us he was a clergyman in New Jersey. "Can you tell me how to get to America?" he asks. "I can't live here anymore. My house has fallen. I can't stay." - © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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