Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s Camps of Despair

By Sue Montgomery, Montreal Gazetter
July 3, 2010

Six months after the earthquake, life in Haiti’s 1,300 camps is crowded, unsanitary and increasingly dangerous. Sue Montgomery goes back to Port-au-Prince and finds electricity, water and schools, but little real shelter in the makeshift settlements. And for most people, proper housing is years away.

Port-au-Prince- A raucous crowd surges from between two rows of tightly packed tents in Camp Dadadou, and from the middle of it, a young woman stumbles, struggling to regain her balance and escape the chanting mob.

Haitians of all ages jeer and push, some laughing, as the mass of sweating bodies moves along the perimeter of the camp. Unable to escape her captors, the young woman falls to the ground, and, after either being hit on the head with a wooden bat or slamming her skull against the concrete, her eyes roll back in her head and she falls unconscious, her thin, soaked body convulsing until it forms just a stiff board.

A few declare her dead. Several cheer the rumour, announcing that justice is served.

Most head back to their tents, the day’s excitement over in what has become a miserable, boring existence. Only one -an 11-year-old orphaned boy who looks as if he might cry -asks whether she will survive.

After six months of living first under bedsheets and towels, and now inside torn, sweltering and soaked tents suitable at best for weekend camping, the stress in Haiti’s crowded and unsanitary camps is beginning to grow. Normally patient Haitians, already traumatized by the massive loss of life in January’s unprecedented earthquake, are starting to lose it.

“I have to leave Haiti,” says Genevieve Joubert, a nurse living with about 10,500 others on the former soccer pitch now known as camp Dadadou. “But there’s nowhere to go.”

Joubert has delivered 126 babies in her camp alone, and is trying to find care for 24 orphans whose parents could very well be living in another camp, unaware that their children are still alive.

Around Port-au-Prince, which, six months after the Jan. 12 quake, still looks like a war zone, and in nearby Jacmel and Legane, about 1,300 camps erected by hundreds of thousands of Haitians in the hours after their lives were shattered, are becoming permanent slums.

Late afternoon torrential rains soak belongings and leave lake-size puddles in which mosquitoes breed, then spread malaria. Deep, raspy coughs can be heard everywhere. Scabies and other infections transform children’s soft skin into irritating red bumpy rashes. Bellies are swelling and hair turning orange from malnutrition. Vomiting and diarrhea are as common as flies.

While injuries from the quake have healed into scars, there are countless accidents from the chaotic living conditions -toddlers falling into vats of boiling rice or beans, people breaking limbs on chunks of concrete and wire, entire families poisoned by carbon monoxide as they cook in their tents.

Around the city, the stench of rotting bodies has been replaced by the stench of rotting piles of garbage. Many of the destroyed buildings, as well as those on the verge of collapse, are spray-painted with frustration: “Down with Preval,” one reads. “No more used U.S. shit.” Demonstrations are becoming more common as elections, slated for November, draw closer.

“Victims left their tents and tarps to find themselves in new tents in isolated areas where basic services are hard, if not impossible, to get.” National Human Rights Defence Network

The goodwill that was palpable in the first weeks following the quake, with strangers helping strangers, has been replaced by arguments over handouts from the myriad NGOs here, and crime is on the rise.

In the first three months after the quake, police arrested 2,250 people, a quarter of them for violent sexual crimes, according to one human-rights NGO. There have been three deaths from stoning, 133 from bullets and five police officers have been killed. This week, the National Human Rights Defence Network reported that crimes like rape, murders, armed robberies, car theft and kidnappings continue to increase. In June alone, there were at least 27 murders, the Haitian NGO said.

“There was a sense of solidarity after the quake, but now people are going back to looking out for themselves,” said Alfred Gibbs, of the Haitian NGO. “Food is no longer being distributed to many, so those who don’t have work or money are going back to crime.”

The World Cup brought a welcome diversion, with Brazilian and Argentine flags propped on tents and rubble. Otherwise, people spend their days playing dominoes, washing clothing, cooking and drying things out. Worse, their living space is unlikely to change much before next summer, and even then, it still won’t be permanent housing.

Imogen Wall, from the UN’s office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said it’s impossible to say how long the tent camps will be in place.

“In Aceh after the tsunami, it took over two years, but in Haiti, the challenges are, if anything, even more complex.

“The best estimates at present suggest that it will take years just to clear the rubble from the city, let alone start large-scale reconstruction.”

Approximately 19 million cubic metres of debris, or enough to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto nearly 12 times, must be removed. According to the Canadian Red Cross, it took two years to clear the debris from the World Trade Centre, and that was with modern equipment. In Haiti, most of it is being cleared with small shovels and wheelbarrows.

“It’s going to be much harder (than in Aceh),” said Jean-Philipe Tizi, who was the Canadian Red Cross’s director of operations after the tsunami and is its director of programs in Haiti. “There is a lack of local resources, it’s an urban setting and it’s much less developed.”

While the level of aid is uneven, most of the camps seem to have the basics: electricity (albeit spotty), water, chemical toilets, medical clinics and schools, thanks to nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Partners in Health and UNICEF. As well, UNICEF has registered 1,667 kids who were separated from their parents. Of those, 225 have been reunited thanks to a hotline.

The main, and seemingly insurmountable, challenge, remains adequate shelter.

Instead of waiting for what most believe will never come, many Haitians, with characteristic resourcefulness and out of sheer need, are making the best of the intolerable situation. Some have begun building more solid shelters, using wooden poles and tarps, while others are rebuilding in the fashion that contributed to this disaster in the first place -bricks and mortar, which tend to perform badly in earthquakes.

In the teeming camp that sprang up on the Pietionville golf course – some estimates set the population at 60,000 -Anne-Suze Denestant, 24, is getting on with life.

She pours water over the soapy head of a woman crouched over a plastic basin and runs a hand through the tangled mass. Her other arm is gone at the shoulder.

“At least I’m alive,” shrugs Denestant with a smile, when asked how she’s getting along with the missing limb. “The other people I was trapped with under the rubble are dead.”

Behind her, posters of buff soccer players hang on the walls of the tent that has been transformed into a beauty salon, offering hair care, pedicures and manicures.

Johanne Joseph, who’s also 24, set up the salon just weeks after the quake hit and claims to be making more now than before the disaster. “No one’s helping us with food, water or tents,” she said.

Up the sandbag-lined path, a handful of people crouch on the ground, shooing a dark swarm of flies from the raw fish and chicken displayed for sale. Charcoal vendors, their hands blackened from their wares, stack the meagre bricks into buckets. Corn roasts over coals next to piles of rice and beans.

“We need houses,” said Jean Laurent Nelson, holding his 2-year-old and with his 12-year-old clutching his leg.

“The NGOs all come here and take pictures, but nothing happens.”

The situation is reminiscent of post-tsunami Indonesia.

By February 2007, three years after that disaster, the Canadian Red Cross had not built a single house, despite a budget of $300 million U.S. to do so, according to a report published by Uplink Banda Aceh, a local NGO that supported community organizations in 23 villages as they tried to rebuild. Uplink, on the other hand, had constructed over 3,300 houses.

Tizi said by 2009, they’d built 6,000, after having done thorough evaluations to make sure the land and structures would withstand future earthquakes.

Lucienne Lussier opens the flap on her tent to show the ditch

she dug in the earth to keep the heavy rainwater from gathering in what has been her home for months. She says she is 58, but looks about 80. One of her two daughters squats, stirring a steaming pot that wobbles on a stand over a few embers.

“The future doesn’t look good,” Lussier says sadly, after explaining her husband was killed in the quake. “We would like to leave here, but …” and she shrugs before turning away.

Recently, about 1,300 families were moved to another camp in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince on a desolate piece of land offered by the government, devoid of trees or any form of shade, and a bus ride away from school, church and markets. Instead of houses, they were once again put in tents, pitched on rocks and pebbles. They felt they’d been duped.

“We thought moving would be better, but it’s not at all,” said Marcelin Coupere as he stood in the boiling hot sun, sweat beading on his forehead and neck.

“There’s a lot of money that came in from the international community so we should get the minimum,” he says, as a growing crowd gathers around him, nodding in agreement.

“I understand there are problems, but there’s no political will. To speak of a government here is absurd.”

Another camp of tents, also without trees or electricity, has sat empty for three months, after Haitians refused to move there from the squalid camp in front of the ruined presidential palace.

A report by the National Human Rights Defence Network is critical of such relocations.

“This has changed nothing for the victims’ situation, and if anything, worsened it,” it reads. “Victims left their tents and tarps to find themselves in new tents in isolated areas where basic services are hard, if not impossible, to get.”

Up a hill in the golf course camp, 21-year-old June Laguerre straightens the rainbow of nail polish bottles neatly lined up on a wooden board propped between two poles.

“Imagine living in a tent,” she says. “It’s hot and now they want to move us to another tent.

“There are no bodies on the street anymore, but it’s as if there are.”

So far, only 2,071 transitional shelters -a step up from tents but not yet permanent housing -have been built to house 10,355 people, mostly outside the capital. By next summer, it’s hoped there will be 125,000 such shelters for 625,000 people -not even half the number left homeless.

“If you want to build shelters, you need the permission of the landowner and in a lot of cases, it’s not clear who the owner is, or the owner can’t be found because, for example, he died,” said Timo Luege, of the shelter cluster, which is comprised of some 70 agencies working on the issue. There are 12 such groups, each one trying to deal with a specific aspect of the disaster.

The ministry of public works is in the process of marking about a million buildings with either green, yellow or red spray paint, informing the owners or tenants that the building is either safe to move back into, needs repairs or has to come down completely.

It’s hoped that many of the homeless will either move back into their homes, or into the houses of neighbours and friends, lessening the number of transitional houses needed.

But as the large organizations hold their meetings and write

their reports, smaller ones have hooked up with private firms and are forging ahead, plan or no plan.

Eric Klein, founder of Californiabased NGO Can-Do, grew impatient with the large NGOs and instead hooked up with a small Arizona construction company. Within three days, with the help of locals, they would build a hurricane-and earthquake-proof women’s clinic in the golf course camp.

“We would love to sit down with other NGOS, but it just seems there are so many meetings and a lot of talk, but nobody’s pulling the trigger,” he said, sweat drenching the neckline of his torn T-shirt. “The transitional homes they’re making with the wood aren’t a solution. It’s a Band-Aid.

“Two years from now, what are they going to do, sit around and have more meetings? It’s a waste of our money.”

Klein, who was also involved in the aftermaths of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, is fed up with the bureaucracy of larger organizations.

“I have come to believe there is too much money changing hands among these charities, and that the full sum donated as our initial act of compassion, is not the same amount being used to provide aid to the needy,” he says on his website. “I have discovered that these NGOs are part of a highly unregulated business sector, and in my opinion, we need to start making non-profit organizations accountable for their actions, or more importantly, lack of them.”

Behind him, a cement mixer churned the grey substance while an army of Haitian men slapped it on the Styrofoam walls -a design that would provide the clinic with insulation against the sweltering heat.

Francis Meram’s Creative Composite Solutions company donated the materials for the clinic and he says houses -either in a temporary or permanent location -could be built the same way, and would last 1,500 years.

“We hear talk of transitional shelters, but those are basically glorified tents that they want these people to live in for the next two to three years,” he said. “So it’s really upsetting to see that nothing has been done with all the money that’s been here, and these NGOs and other organizations aren’t doing more.”

The larger international organizations are used to the criticism that they aren’t doing enough, fast enough. But Oxfam, like others, says it’s difficult to move forward until the government puts people in charge of the reconstruction plan drawn up at a donor’s conference in New York in March.

“We know an endless pot of money doesn’t create a solution,” said Oxfam’s Julie Schindall, admitting to widespread frustration among the thousands of NGOs in the country. “No amount of dollars is going to find a solution for 1.5 million homeless people. Planning is going to do that.”

The millions of dollars raised in the first weeks after the quake

is staggering, but so is the amount needed.

In the six months since the earthquake, Oxfam has spent a third of the $90 million it raised for earthquake relief and has stopped collecting specifically for Haiti. MSF raised $13 million in Canada for Haiti, which was absorbed into the $93 million the global organization expects to spend this year. To date, they’ve spent an estimated $15 million. Red Cross raised $196 million in Canada alone, with $54 million of that coming from the federal government. They spent just over $43 million in the first three months.

World Vision raised $36 million in Canada, including an $8.3-million grant from Ottawa. As of the end of May, it has spent about $66.4 million U.S. in Haiti – approximately 35 per cent of the total it raised worldwide.

Many Haitians criticize them for spending the money on large, air-conditioned SUVs, restaurants, high-priced foreign consultants and engineers, as well as nice living quarters. NGOs have also provided plenty of employment, hiring locals as drivers, translators, and office workers. Many are also offering cash for work, and small teams of Haitians, dressed in identical T-shirts and hats sporting the name of an NGO, can be seen around town shovelling rubble in to wheelbarrows.

But while the program injects about $175,000 into the local economy daily, the National Human Rights Defence Network says women are being forced to perform sex acts in exchange for getting hired on the program or to have their contracts renewed.

“What’s more, the jobs have no impact on the environment or on the economy,” the report says. “Streets are still dirty, sewers still clogged, rubble strewn along the roads, obstructing traffic and annoying passersby.”

The same effect was felt in Aceh where, according to the report by Uplink, organizations flooded local communities with cash and undermined their ability to ” determine their own outcomes and develop themselves independently.

“This sense of powerlessness also encouraged communities to take all that they could and to see externally provided funds/aid as their right.”

And just like after the tsunami, jobs in cleanup or construction are short-lived, making people wonder what they will do once the NGOs inevitably move on, and there is no long-term development in industry or agriculture.

Winzor Monuma got a six-month contract with Partners in Health to help out in one of the camps’ medical clinics and has no idea what he’ll do when it’s up.

“It’s hot, it’s raining and we have no shelter,” he said, somehow managing to smile despite the misery around him.

Six months after quake, Haitians still wait in sweltering tents Adequate shelter is the main challenge for Haiti. To view a photo gallery by Carl Henry Jean-Baptiste of life in the Port-au-Prince camps, go to montrealgazette. com

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