Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

6 Months After the Quake, Haitians Homeless Still Live in Squalor

By Sheldon Alberts, Vancouver Sun
July 12, 2010

In January, Canwest Washington correspondent Sheldon Alberts covered the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in the cities of Port-au-Prince and Leogane. As the nation marks the six-month anniversary of the tragedy on Monday, Alberts has returned to chart the progress and setbacks in efforts to rebuild and recover.

Carmelle Saint-Germain stirs ingredients for a cake at her tent at the Corail camp for Haitians displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake. Saint-Germain lives with her husband and two daughters at the camp, which has drawn complaints for being erected on a flood plain with no shelter from the sun. Photograph by: Carl Henry Jean-Baptiste, Canwest News Service

CORAIL, Haiti — Carmelle Saint-Germain bends low over a bowl of cake dough, her right arm churning the ingredients in rapid circular motions. Two pigtailed girls, Marielle and Carnielle, play nearby in the gravel that surrounds the family’s tent, kicking up clouds of dust that only briefly scatter the gathering flies.

Six months ago, Saint-Germain operated a beauty parlour in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince. In the evening after a hot day, she could walk to a shop near her apartment to buy her daughters ice cream and soda.

Now Saint-Germain lives in Block 6, Tent H12 of the Haitian government’s new Corail relocation camp, a place of such dystopian extremes that residents wonder if the officials “re-imagining” post-earthquake Haiti aren’t conspiring to make their lives even more miserable.

“This used to be a desert. Nobody could live here. It is a forsaken place,” says Saint-Germain, 35. “The government told us we would have better lives in Corail. But we feel like dead people.”

As Haitians commemorate the six-month anniversary on Monday of the 7.0 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people, the Corail camp has become a symbol of how the nation’s once-promising reconstruction effort has gone off the rails.

Set on a treeless flood plain 16 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince, the camp is home to about 10,000 Haitians who lost their homes on Jan. 12.

The tents here are laid out in a neat grid with ample space between lodgings. Outdoor toilets are set in the middle of wide dirt thoroughfares, well away from the living quarters. United Nations troops and Haiti’s national police conduct regular patrols.

But the camp is utterly without shade from the relentless Caribbean sun, which pushes daily temperatures near 40 C. The tallest green, living things are the cacti that stand sentry outside the camp’s perimeter. The tents themselves rest on a vast bed of gravel, which is necessary for stability and drainage but gives the camp the barren look of base camp at Mount Everest.

In the relative cool of the Haitian evening, when residents might find a measure of comfort in the night air, they are forced inside by swarms of mosquitoes.

“The kids get faint in the tents when it’s hot. If they need a nap, they must do it on the rocks outside. But at night, you cannot be outside the tent for even a minute because of the mosquitoes,” says Saint-Germain.

“We can’t wear normal clothes. We just put underwear on because of the heat. We have to pour water over our bodies to keep cool.”

Determining whether conditions have improved or worsened for the people at Corail is a tricky matter, given the utter squalor in which many of the 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the earthquake still live.

Most of Corail’s residents spent the first months after the earthquake packed among 50,000 people in treacherous conditions on the hilly fairways of a nine-hole golf course in Petionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb. Even brief rains sent water roaring into tents at the bottom of the golf course, leaving behind a putrid stew of mud and human waste.

Using eminent domain, Haitian President Rene Preval’s administration seized the land at Corail in the winter. The government conceived Corail as a new urban community where residents would live at first in transitional shelters — sturdy half-cylinder tents — before more permanent housing was constructed. Other similar government-selected camps are being planned.

The first of Corail’s residents relocated from Petionville in March and, according to interviews with several of them, were told they would have sturdier, more permanent housing within three months. Construction has yet to begin.

“It is good, and at the same time it is bad,” says Severe Pierre Wilzor, 33, who was moved to Corail on March 23.

“They have made us many promises. They said we would live in a house by now but we are still here. We don’t know what is going on.”

The task of locating and constructing new shelter has proved to be overwhelming for the Haitian government and international non-governmental organizations.

Of 125,000 transitional residences being planned by “shelter cluster” agencies in Haiti, only 3,722 had been completed by July 3.

The reasons for the delays run the gamut from disputes over land rights to problems gearing up rubble-removal projects and internal squabbling over the design and materials to be used for the shelters.

“In the next couple of months we will start working through that at a more rapid pace and getting some of these other things going,” former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who co-chairs Haiti’s reconstruction commission, told the Associated Press. “They have enormous potential.”

Still, even housing projects personally overseen by Preval are floundering. The Haitian president, who has been criticized for poor management of the crisis, has prioritized the relocation of a sprawling homeless camp in a park across from the fallen National Palace. But the site Preval has chosen for a new camp reportedly remains littered with rubble that mostly must be removed by hand.

There are no such problems with crumbled buildings and rubble at Corail. Other, more life-threatening problems abound.

With no trees to block the wind and tents secured only by ropes and pegs, the Corail camp is extremely vulnerable to the threat of a hurricane this summer — and the possibility is a constant source of anxiety for camp residents.

Moreover, heavy rains send torrents of water rushing down ravines carved into the deforested hillsides near the camp’s edge. Aid groups are digging deep perimeter trenches to hold the floodwaters back, but residents say their tents already have been overrun once this summer.

“It was like we are in the middle of the sea. The tents were rocking back and forth. We thought we were going to die,” Saint-Germain says of the conditions during one storm in June.

Environmental factors aside, a major obstacle to Corail’s potential as a viable long-term community is the absence of a viable economy because of its remote setting.

Saint-Germain’s husband, a manager at a factory near the Port-au-Prince airport, rises each morning at 4 a.m. for a commute that can take two hours.

“It’s not just a housing issue. It’s a livelihood issue,” says Gary Shaye, the country director for Save the Children, which operates a child-friendly space at Corail that provides refuge and recreation for the camp’s children.

“What is the access to sustainable livelihoods and social services?”

Some of Corail’s resident cling to hope for their new community. Wilzor says aid groups need to better co-ordinate their activities in the camp, which still lacks a hospital.

“We have to see the future with hope to rebuild the country. Corail could be the example of what Haiti could be,” he says.

But Saint-Germain longs for her old neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, and thinks she and her family might have been better off remaining at the Petionville golf course. Ironically the Petionville camp, which is managed by Oscar-winning actor and director Sean Penn, is now considered a model in post-earthquake Haiti.

“We have none of our old routines. There are no activities to keep us busy. We live in monotony here,” says Saint-Germain.

“No one ever asks us what we want to do. They just bring us here like homeless people and they forget all about us.”

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