Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

In Haiti’s tent cities, return to normalcy is unimaginable

By Fred Grimm, McClatchy News

Signs of permanence are taking hold in impromptu camps

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — The concept of temporary, amid Haiti’s teeming refugee camps, has morphed into a dismal variation of forever.

A deluge of earthquake victims, shocked and terrified, spilled out of the city’s ruins after the disaster and found refuge in parks, school yards, soccer pitches, garden patches, almost any private or public space they could find in their tumbled down city.

Their flimsy tents, fabricated from bed sheets, tattered plastic, sticks and strings, reinforced the assumption that these impromptu settlements, 1,300 of them, would surely vanish before the summer rains could wash them away.

Six months later, the dispossessed remain, in transition to nowhere, with nowhere to go. With a million or so (no one really knows) still occupying what had been the city’s open spaces, a return to normalcy has become unimaginable.

In the Champs de Mars, a once-compelling 42-acre network of parks and plazas with shaded lawns, a bandshell and amphitheater by the National Palace, the sprawl of bed sheet tents erected just after the Jan. 12 earthquake has evolved into a dense shanty settlement of crude but markedly more substantial dwellings. Thousands of quake survivors have fabricated little one-room shacks fashioned from lumber and corrugated metal salvaged from wrecked buildings with roofs of gray plastic tarps imprinted with “From the American people.”

Lately, shanty dwellers have begun adding cement and rock footings around the base of their no-longer-so-temporary homes. And doors with locks.

Nelson Pierre, a one-time physics teacher, built his cottage-tent hybrid near the stylized statue of Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint L’ouverture, with a glass window and a gable of wooden slats for ventilation. A poster featuring the periodic tables of chemical elements, recalling his life before the earthquake, share the wall with pictures of Jesus and fashion models. His home defies the notion of temporary.

Narrow passageways wind through the Champs de Mars’ spontaneous ghetto, a place that has developed its own commerce, politics and vice along with shanties. At the wider places along these haphazard paths, cooks toil over charcoal fires, laundry dries on clothes lines, vendors hawk their wares. In one little opening, on a piece of plywood barely 6 feet long, Guilaine Pierre sold zucchini, carrots, corn meal, beans, eggplants, peppers, plantains, cooking oil, dried fish, flour, salami and Madam Gougousse brown rice.

Other vendors claimed the better locations along the street curbs, selling sundries and rice, flour and corn meal that had first come into camp as relief supplies from international humanitarian organizations. Fredes Batus, 46, complained that the self-appointed boss of his plaza controlled distribution of relief supplies, a means to build himself a political power base.

“He’s stealing 70 percent of it,” Batus said bitterly.

On a park wall, graffiti summed up the seething mood of Haiti’s dispossessed in absurdist terms: “Welcome back JC Duvalier” for the long-exiled, famously brutal dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

Carlos Jean Charles, 29, in a T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag and the face of country singer George Strait, spoke darkly of other commerce that has taken hold. Charles, who sleeps with his wife and three children in a 7-foot-long corrugated metal and scrap wood hovel barely wide enough for a single twin-bed mattress, said some families were so desperate that they offered up their children, some as young as 10, as prostitutes.

The Haitian government has been talking for months about relocating the people of Champs de Mars in planned relocation camps outside of town. No one I talked to inside the camp professed any faith that an overwhelmed and irresolute bureaucracy could accomplish such a logistical feat.

“We could be here next year, the year after that, the year after that,” said Jourdain Ernso, 18. “This should be a public place but we have no place else to go.”

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