Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Inside Haiti’s Tent Cities

By David Schmidt

More than six months after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the vast majority of those displaced by the disaster remain homeless. At least 1,300 tent camps form a thick archipelago of settlements spreading across the landscape of Port au Prince.

The following narrative is based on my recent experiences visiting several of these camps, speaking with hundreds of Haitians, and an all-night stay in one of them.

* * * *

5:30 AM: As the dawn breaks over the sea of tents and shanties, camp residents rush to the overcrowded latrines—severely limited in many camps, non-existent in even more. Chronic diarrhea is common and the lines are long, making daily sanitary routines a test of endurance and patience.

In spite of the austere conditions, mothers and fathers manage to carve normalcy out of the chaos: children are dressed in a clean uniform for school, teeth are brushed, faces washed. Many adults head into town to look for work. Some manage to find a foreign NGO nearby offering temporary employment through one of the “cash for work” programs—beneficial, but in short supply.

9:00 AM: Many women spend the day in the camp caring for their children and doing housework. Commonplace chores become a Sisyphean task under these conditions: diapers are changed, infants and toddlers bathed, dishes washed and clothes laundered, all without the benefit of running water. Many families have set up shops, parlors and food services as a way to eke out a living in their tent communities, which rapidly seem more like permanent establishments.

12:30 PM: At some point during the afternoon, these women try to find a relatively secluded spot to bathe, preoccupied with thoughts of who might be watching them. Privacy is hard to come by and, in the absence of effective law enforcement, sexual assault is a constant danger.

6:00 PM: The men and women who have been selling their wares at the market or searching for scrap to resell begin to return to their tents. The word “tent” is loosely used—many have been forced to cobble a shelter together out of whatever materials they could lay their hands on (I met one family that slept beneath a threadbare blanket propped up with a single stick).

On nights with heavy rainfall, most of the camps become heavily flooded. I noticed a watermark on the wall of one shanty; it reached just below my knee. My queries about what camp residents did when this happened were met with forthright bluntness: “We stand up all night holding our belongings.” Storms have ravaged many of the camps, ruining tent compounds and destroying structures.

7:30 PM: If one of the humanitarian aid organizations has come by recently, or if work is available nearby, camp residents may be lucky enough to eat before going to bed. However, no rest comes with the darkness.

11:30 PM: Groups of antisocial men lie in wait by the latrines, watching for unaccompanied women to rape. The many single women living in the camp will likely stay in their tents with their children until dawn, perhaps using plastic bags as makeshift chamber pots. They must constantly remain on their guard throughout the night. One middle-aged woman described thirteen masked men who broke into her tent and raped her while they held a plastic bag over her head. Many women who live alone keep a machete nearby for self-defense.

Men in the camps often stay awake all night. Picking up the slack for the absent police, camp residents have organized their own volunteer security patrols; men take turns keeping watch for potential attackers, armed only with flashlights and whistles. Residents of the Champ de Mars camp of downtown Port au Prince described to me the extreme danger involved: gangs of armed men had warned the volunteers, “We know who you are, and we know where you live. Stay out of our way.”

5:30 AM: The routine is repeated. Somehow, the thousands of displaced Haitians who live in these camps find the strength to keep on going, conscious of the fact that this will be their life tomorrow, and the next week, and the following week, for months and months with no end in sight.

–David Schmidt

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