Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

7 months after quake, squalor unabated

By Maria Sacchetti, Boston Globe

Haitians suffer, improvise as their government fails to assist




Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff


PETIONVILLE, Haiti — In the St. Therese Park tent camp, two reeking latrines serve thousands of people still homeless almost seven months after the earthquake. Babies without diapers cuddle on their mothers’ laps. Hungry rats prowl through the tents at night, biting people as they sleep.

A few days ago, the water ran out.

In scorching heat, a group of angry parents, caked in grime and sweat, marched to the winding street above the camp armed with empty containers, a sawed-off garden hose, and pans. They busted open an exposed pipe and collected the water that gushed from it.

“You are pieces of garbage,’’ a man in a passing car shouted at the group of mostly women, who said they wanted to bathe their children. As they worked, several aid trucks and two police cars passed within inches of them, but did not stop. A passenger in an SUV marked “United Nations Development Program’’ tapped a message on his phone as they glided by.

“There’s not much help,’’ said Benice George, a 50-year-old construction worker, cradling his 1-year-old son, Angelo, in his arms. He used the water later to cook spaghetti on a campfire, his family’s only meal that day. “We’re not living like human beings.’’

The scene reflected the stark conditions that pervade this once-affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince and the sprawling destruction that goes on for miles beyond it. Across this Caribbean nation, less than 4 percent of the debris has been cleared since the powerful Jan. 12 earthquake, and some 1.6 million people are living in tent camps in the middle of hurricane season, despite $1.8 billion in earthquake aid, according to US government and United Nations figures.

Now, under pressure to intensify the aid effort, US officials and others say it is clear that rebuilding Haiti’s government is a vital next step, because the Haitian government is the only entity accountable to all people.

Paul Farmer, founder of Boston-based Partners in Health and a deputy special envoy for the United Nations, recently told a congressional panel that less than 3 percent of aid had gone directly to the Haitian government, and urged lawmakers to increase such disbursement. In the past, he said, US and other policies have sometimes bypassed Haiti’s leadership, weakening it and contributing in part to the crisis today.

At the US Embassy, a top official said “there is some validity’’ to Farmer’s conclusions but said the United States is committed to strengthening Haiti’s government going forward.

“We want to make sure that everything we do is consistent with the government of Haiti’s policies, its needs, its desires,’’ said Leon S. Waskin, director of the response effort for the US Agency for International Development. “They actually have to be government of Haiti programs, not donor programs, or else they’re not going to work.’’

Haiti’s government will receive a “significant portion’’ of aid in coming months, Waskin said, though he did not provide specific figures. He said Haiti’s leaders will play a primary role in deciding how to spend money in a joint trust fund administered by the World Bank. The Haitian government also will decide everything from rubble disposal to resettling tent camps to proper housing, he said.

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(Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)

Before the earthquake, the Haitian government could not provide basic services such as education and health care to most of the nation’s 9 million people. During the quake, most government ministries collapsed, and nonprofits and private contractors stepped in to provide water, shelter, and vaccinations to prevent widespread disease.

In Petionville, a suburb peppered with upscale boutiques, restaurants, and billboards advertising designer clothes, a deputy mayor, Clac Erick Louis, said tax revenues have plunged 80 percent since the earthquake, crippling the budget. He said the city does not even have a tractor to clear debris.

“Millions of dollars are going to nonprofits but when you go back to Port-au-Prince, it’s as if the earthquake just happened,’’ he said, referring to the lack of progress. “If I had more money, you would not see it the way it is right now.’’

St. Therese Park in Petionville was once a soccer field behind a church. Now tents have swallowed the bleachers and most of the field, except for a small patch of dirt for playing ball. As many as 4,000 people live there, camp leaders say, many since the first days after the quake.

Though nonprofits have helped here to donate blankets, tents, and water, the camp remains at once a flood zone and a firetrap. Residents cook on open-flame camping stoves next to tents, and sometimes inside them. During the day, the 100-degree temperatures turn the tents into saunas. When it rains, often at night, columns of water pour through the flaps.

Sanitary conditions are unbearable, a group of women said. Idamante Jean Pier, a 56-year-old housewife, said she brushes her teeth with ground charcoal. She said women use newspapers to control menstruation. Babies do not have diapers, and many are sick.

As she spoke, Jean Pier held out a photograph of herself at a family celebration two years ago. Trays of food sit on a table. She is smiling; her daughter is dressed for church.

“I look at it to remind myself of my life,’’ she said.

Food is dumped into rudimentary sewers that are inches from the tents, attracting flies and rats.

Verly Boulvard, a former grocery worker who lost a leg in the quake, said a rat attacked his 3-year-old daughter Isabelle a few days ago as she slept.

“I heard her screams,’’ he said, and awoke to find bite marks on his daughter’s head and a fat rat disappearing through a hole in the tent. He sent her and his 6-year-old son to live with relatives in the countryside.

Without a government to set standards, residents are forced to solve their own disputes. The vice president of the tent camp said he recently refused to accept a delivery of water, causing it to run out last week, because tent residents kept stealing the reserves put aside in case of a fire.

“We want to teach them a lesson to respect us, to understand what we’re doing for them,’’ said Pierre Louis Joanex, 36, the camp vice president and a resident.

Repeatedly, residents flagged down Globe journalists to say they wanted to work. US officials say their cash-for-work program has employed more than 114,000 people temporarily since the quake, about 20,000 on any given day.

But residents said that work hasn’t reached the camp.

Afred Louisedes, a 57-year-old tailor, said foreigners showed up long ago and encouraged him to keep working, saying they would bring him business. He let them take his picture behind a sewing machine he had salvaged from his collapsed house.

He never saw them again.

“I was living well before the earthquake,’’ he said wearily, an orange measuring tape dangling around his neck. “God helped me to survive it, and I’m happy for that. But this is not a way to live.”

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