Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

A country ‘forgotten’: Missoula professor shares experience after visiting area still reeling from disaster

By Katie Kane, The Missoulian
June 6, 2010

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – It is 2 p.m. in what used to be the neigh­bor­hood of Croix des Prez in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After the “cat­a­stro­phe” of Jan. 12, it became Camp Croix des Prez, only one of the many camps in which more than 600,000 Haitians still live. Four months after the earth­quake, it looks as though the destruc­tion took place yes­ter­day. Con­crete dust, rub­ble, trash, half-collapsed build­ings, rusted tin and tents make up the geog­ra­phy of Croix des Prez. It is a land­scape on tilt.

I am here to spend the next 24 hours liv­ing in the camp. I’ve just flown in from Mis­soula where I am a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana. I landed in the coun­try a few days ago, and now I am about to spend 24 hours in Croix des Prez. I’m not under­tak­ing this action lightly. This is not dis­as­ter tourism, nor is this a stunt that takes its direc­tion from Amer­i­can real­ity tele­vi­sion. The camps in Port-au-Prince are noto­ri­ously dan­ger­ous sites of con­ta­gion, rape, vio­lence and death.

Katie Kane, left, washes dishes using a plas­tic bag with a res­i­dent of Camp Croix des Prez in Haiti. Kane vis­ited the earthquake-ravaged zone after being invited by the women’s orga­ni­za­tionKOFAVIV. Cour­tesy photo

I have been invited by KOFAVIV, a local women’s orga­ni­za­tion, to learn first-hand and on the ground what life is like in the camps. I am as pre­pared as I think I can be, which, in hind­sight, is to say not at all pre­pared. Despite all my research and plan­ning, noth­ing could have made me truly ready for the real­ity of Croix des Prez.

My expec­ta­tions are chal­lenged imme­di­ately. As I wait for my camp con­tact, Blaise Laloune to arrive, I real­ize that I am stand­ing on top of the roof of a col­lapsed house. It is a dif­fi­cult real­ity to take in. Wilclair Jean, a man who waits with me, real­izes what I am think­ing and says to me, “Sixty-eight peo­ple died here.”

He ges­tures around the camp while he tells me, “We are stand­ing on their bod­ies; they are under us, and we walk on them every day.”

In a state­ment that some­how sums up the gen­eral sit­u­a­tion of fail­ure on the part of the inter­na­tional aid orga­ni­za­tions in Haiti, Jean says, “No one has come to help us to get them out.” It is a phrase I will hear many times over before I leave the camp: “No one has come to help.”

One man I meet asks me, “Has the world for­got­ten Haiti?”

From the looks of Croix des Prez and the other camps I have vis­ited, the answer has to be yes. In the ways that most mat­ter – pro­vid­ing for people’s basic human needs – the world indeed seems to have for­got­ten Haiti.

*****

How could this sit­u­a­tion, one that is quite frankly unimag­in­able for any­one who isn’t here to see, smell, hear and breathe it, be allowed to con­tinue? It as if, four months after the col­lapse of the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers, no recon­struc­tion work had been done and Amer­i­cans were liv­ing in the ruins of the build­ings, cook­ing meals, bathing their chil­dren, strug­gling with each other for scarce resources, and liv­ing their lives with­out much hope for the future.

At 3 p.m., the tem­per­a­ture at Croix des Prez is close to 100 degrees, but, as I’ve found, inside people’s “houses” the tem­per­a­tures are at least 10 degrees hot­ter. Made of cor­ru­gated tin, scraps of wood, plas­tic, tarps, even paper, the homes are more like ovens at this time of the day. There are approx­i­mately 50 of these dwellings in Croix de Prez and about

350 peo­ple live here. It is a small camp that cov­ers an area of about 1/8 of a square mile. There isn’t a lot of room at Croix des Prez, but there are so many people.

At 4 p.m., David Schmidt and I enter Mon­sieur Raimond’s house, a 10-foot by 10-foot shack with a tarp roof that sags a bit under what is left of last night’s rain. The home con­tains two mat­tresses ele­vated off the packed dirt floor, one chair with­out a seat, a small char­coal grill, and not much else.

David, the other mem­ber of the del­e­ga­tion, speaks in Kreyol to Mon­sieur Rai­mond to ask him about life in the camp. From 4 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. that evening, Mon­sieur Raimond’s story will be repeated again and again in the houses we visit. Potable water is not avail­able. It must be pur­chased and it is expen­sive in a coun­try with an 80 per­cent unem­ploy­ment rate. Many peo­ple drink and bathe in dirty water and get sick as a result. Food is also still hard to come by.

One woman who is alone and whose four chil­dren live with her in her home said that she is not able to eat every day. Her chil­dren lis­ten to her talk to us and then look at me. They look at me like I can help them and, of course, I can’t. I have noth­ing to give them to eat. I think about my five chil­dren and how much they have to eat and how safe they were when they were small.

*****

At 5:30 p.m., we meet with a group of women. They speak of their sense of pro­found vul­ner­a­bil­ity. For Hait­ian women, the threat of rape is a shadow that falls over them as the sun goes down. In some camps mem­bers of KOFAVIV and FAVILEK (another women’s orga­ni­za­tion) sleep in shifts at night to com­bat the post-earthquake epi­demic of gender-based violence.

For men the issue of jobs is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant. While we move from house to house in one of the nar­row alley­ways that make up a maze of tin, wood and plas­tic between the houses, we come across Math­ieu Dal­macy, who is sit­ting out­side his house play­ing his gui­tar. His response to our ques­tions about con­di­tions in the camp is star­tling in its intense, sharp cri­tique of the work of Non-Governmental Orga­ni­za­tions, such as the Red Cross, CARE and the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, in Haiti.

“A job comes first, that’s how I see it,” says Dal­macy. “They have to cre­ate jobs for peo­ple. These inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions might have come to help us for real, but I know and see that the peo­ple do not get what they are sup­posed to get. Here in Haiti this is the way it is: The big men get their share first. Maybe if those inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions would have worked with the grass roots they would have got­ten bet­ter results. For exam­ple, in my neigh­bor­hood there are a lot of homes that were destroyed. Is one of those inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions will­ing to give me a job?“

By the time we are done inter­view­ing peo­ple on our first day it is almost 8 p.m. Despite the protests of Blaise and Nadège Maître, another mem­ber of KOFAVIV, I can­not eat. It is too much to lis­ten to peo­ple who are starv­ing and mal­nour­ished and then to eat – at least it is too much for today.

*****

At 6 a.m. the next day I wake early. Our pri­mary job for the day will be to buy the mate­ri­als for an after­noon meal that we will make together, Amer­i­cans and Haitians. We leave for the mar­ket place at 8 a.m. With our money, Blaise and Nadège are able to bar­gain for fish, rice, mush­rooms, plan­tains and other ingre­di­ents at a much larger mar­ket place than the one in Croix des Prez.

We return home and begin pro­cess­ing and cook­ing the food on an out­door char­coal grill. Every­thing has to be pre­pared outside.

The women laugh at my inabil­ity to prop­erly chop cooked beets, or for that mat­ter to suc­cess­fully exe­cute any task I’m given. They are patient with me. The knives have no han­dles: they are only blades and the veg­eta­bles are really hot. I’m a mess of beet and lime juice, fish scales, salt and char­coal smoke by the time all is said and done. But the food is wonderful.

After the meal the women and I do the dishes in pots of water. I use a plas­tic bag to wash things since there are no dishrags. Every­one is happy but tired. It has been a lot of work and it is now 3 p.m., offi­cially past the 24-hour mark. We have been in the camp for over a day.

We will leave behind us the liv­ing con­di­tions that the peo­ple of Croix des Prez will con­tinue to strug­gle with on a daily basis with­out hope for change in the near future. Soon, both David and I will go home to the United States. We will go home to a shower, a dry place to sleep, to potable water, depend­able san­i­ta­tion, and to an abun­dance of food and security.

*****

All of what I have told you about Croix des Prez and about the camps in Port-au-Prince is true, but what is also true and, per­haps most trou­bling about this story, is the fact that approx­i­mately $37,000 per indi­vid­ual Hait­ian has been raised by var­i­ous aid orga­ni­za­tions for dis­as­ter relief in Haiti. Accord­ing to a recent CBSnews report, in most cases only a por­tion of the money raised has been spent. In the case of each orga­ni­za­tion, the rest of the money is being held in abeyance for “long term” devel­op­ment in Haiti’s “future.”

As I fin­ish writ­ing this arti­cle about Croix des Prez in the late evening on Fri­day, May 21, it is rain­ing in Haiti. It is rain­ing hard and, unusu­ally, it has been rain­ing for four hours. I am dry, but in the camp houses are com­ing apart and falling down. The peo­ple are awake and wet. Men and women, grand­par­ents and chil­dren, all are awake, I am sure of that. As they told us, when it rains, they have to stand up ankle deep in mud and water inside their homes, to keep them­selves and what­ever pos­ses­sions they can hold from get­ting com­pletely drenched.

In the ways that mat­ter most, then, you and I have, in fact, for­got­ten Haiti. As I have said, the answer to the ques­tion I was asked when I entered the camp must be yes.

Yes, the world has for­got­ten Haiti.

But, this for­get­ting, this global turn­ing away, is not final. We must find a way to truly see into Haiti’s camps. We must truly try to under­stand the lives and suf­fer­ing of the peo­ple who live there. We must insist that the money we helped raise and gather for our fel­low human beings be spent wisely, but spent now, and spent in con­sul­ta­tion with Hait­ian peo­ple at the grass­roots as well as gov­ern­men­tal levels.

Katie Kane is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana and an author.  Reach her by e-mail at katie.kane@mso.umt.edu.

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