Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Contrasting Relief Camps Showcase Haiti Challenges

By Jason Beaubien, NPR Morning Edition
May 24, 2010

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In the shattered Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, two camps for earthquake survivors are situated side by side, and they couldn’t be more different.

A little boy plays near four unused portable toilets

David Gilkey/NPR. A little boy plays near four unused portable toilets at the Ancien Aeroport Militaire. Some 49,000 people are packed into what’s become a bustling slum. Across the street, security guards keep the masses away from brand new tents, spotless toilets and glistening showers at an unused camp.

One built by the Haitian government is clean, new, orderly and empty. The other is the largest informal settlement in the city. It has turned into a bustling slum that reeks of raw sewage and is overflowing with people.

The two camps illustrate some of the huge challenges facing Haiti, where more than 1 million people are still displaced from their homes.

After the Jan. 12 quake, tens of thousands of people flooded onto the tarmac of the defunct old military airport in the capital. People hastily erected makeshift shacks and shops sprang up.

Now, about 49,000 people live in the Camp Ancien Aeroport Militaire. International aid groups have tried to alleviate the poor conditions. A school has been set up in a tent. Doctors Without Borders trucks in water every day. The U.S. military laid down 5,000 cubic yards of gravel to fill the muddy, mosquito-infested areas.

John Cindric with the American Refugee Committee became the manager of the camp on May 1. Despite the overcrowding, overflowing toilets and the shelters that sometimes collapse in the rain, he says, “This is a good camp.”

International aid agencies, along with the residents, are slowly and steadily addressing the challenges facing this settlement, he says.

But almost 50,000 people suddenly living in an area without basic services creates a precarious situation, Cindric says.

“If suddenly our water supply stops for some reason, that can go wrong,” he says. “We try our best, but it can still fall apart if certain things go wrong.”

Mecene Eugene, 61, lives at the camp, sharing a shelter made of sticks, twine and orange tarps with his six children. Eugene lost his house and shop in the quake. He also injured his left leg, which still hasn’t healed.

He says this camp is hell.

Mecene Eugene

David Gilkey/NPR. Mecene Eugene, 61, lives in the largest camp in Port-au-Prince, the Ancien Aeroport Militaire. He says the camp is hell.

“If you take a look inside my tent, you’ll see a piece of carpet I’m sleeping in,” he says. “It would break your heart. If you look into anybody else’s tent, you’ll see the same situation.”

When it rains, his roof leaks. Food distributions are chaotic, if they happen at all. The toilets are so full of sewage that Eugene says he can’t even use them.

Just across the street from the old military airport camp there is what’s called the “Flagpole” camp, because of a huge flagpole that’s in front of it. The camp was built by the Haitian government in March, but remains empty.

More than 500 large white tents are laid out in rows on an expanse of leveled gravel. There are rows of brand new toilets. There are shipping containers fitted with clean shower stalls that have never been used. Tarps from the U.S. Agency for International Development are draped over each tent.

Security guards at the camp say they have orders to keep almost everyone out.

“The people are so eager to move here,” security guard Louis Juste Giteau says. “They want to move here. But they can’t be moving here without a proper order from the government, because they can kick them out in an ugly way.”

During the crisis, the International Organization for Migration has been the lead agency in moving people from informal settlements into planned tent cities.

According to the IOM, the Flagpole camp was set aside by the Haitian government for quake victims who are in a park next to the National Palace.

Guard Louis Juste Giteau walks through the unused camp built by the Haitian government.

David Gilkey/NPR. Guard Louis Juste Giteau walks through the unused camp built by the Haitian government. The camp has more than 500 tents that have been sitting empty for more than a month. At the Ancien Aeroport Militaire, just across the street, some 49,000 people are packed into what’s become a bustling slum.

But for some reason, those victims were never moved here. Officials at IOM and other aid agencies say that this is a Haitian government project, and it’s up to the Haitian government to decide who moves in and when.

The tents have been sitting untended for so long that some of them have collapsed. Others are filled with stagnant rainwater.

It is unclear exactly which agency within the Haitian government controls the new camp. The camp guards say it’s the Interior Ministry, but officials there referred NPR to the Shelter Commission.

Officials with the Shelter Commission were not immediately available to comment on why this camp has remained empty for so long.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Haitians ride out the pounding nightly rains under little more than a plastic tarp.

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