By. Jocelyn Brooks and Greger Calhan, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)
July 14, 2011 — Standing out amidst the wreckage of a destroyed tent were a child’s stuffed animal and blue toy truck. This rubble pile was not the only make-shift home destroyed in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) known as Camp Centre d’Herbergement de Eric Jean-Baptiste in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The camp is under increasing, violent pressure to leave the plot of land from a man purporting to own it. Ironically, the camp is named after this man since people from the neighborhood believe he is the land’s owner.
The men prowled through the camp, choosing tents apparently at random, to threaten, slash with sharp weapons, or tear down entirely.
No proof, however, of his ownership has ever been presented to the camp residents – a significant fact given that only five percent of land title in Haiti had been recorded with the government before the earthquake.
Rendered homeless by the January 2010 earthquake, 680 families have built a small, hardy community in Camp Centre d’Herbergement, a dusty patch of land hidden from view in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour. Already vulnerable to natural forces, including wind, rain, and the stifling heat of Haiti’s mid-summer, this community is now under attack by man-made ones as well. In recent weeks, armed men, in the pay of the purported landowner, have entered the camp, assaulted and threatened residents, destroyed homes, and made promises of worse to come.
At the request of the camp’s Crisis Committee, a team from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) visited the camp on July 8th to speak with victims of the recent violence and threats. Described in detail, and corroborated by many residents, we heard about the nighttime visit by the camp’s purported landowner and a group of men—some in police uniforms and all of them armed. The men prowled through the camp, choosing tents apparently at random, to threaten, slash with sharp weapons, or tear down entirely. The unlucky victims of the destruction—many of whom were brusquely awakened from slumber by the attack—were forced to either squeeze into their neighbors’ cramped, temporary homes, or leave the camp altogether.
The armed men were belligerent and showed no regard for the safety or property of those residents arbitrarily chosen for attack. Most targeted individuals reported that they were given no time to remove their belongings (or, in some cases, even themselves) from the tents ahead of destruction. That no one suffered serious injuries was pure good luck, and no thanks to the reckless behavior of the intruders. In a few instances, the men destroyed tents knowing full well that their occupants were still inside—in one instance, this caused the wooden frame of a tent to come crashing down on top of a man.
The purported landowner and his men showed astonishing callousness to the well-being of camp residents. We met a frail, elderly woman whose tent they had destroyed without any explanation. Made homeless a second time since the earthquake, she was obliged to move out of the camp to find a new place to live—of uncertain stability—but still makes the daily trek back to the camp to be with her community. A young pregnant woman’s face showed pain as she recounted to us her encounter with the purported landowner’s men. They had approached her tent to tell her they had come to destroy her home. When she pled with them, explaining that she had nowhere else to go, they destroyed her tent anyway.
One story was especially striking in its illumination of the objectives of the “landowner.” Upon approaching one resident’s tent, the purported landowner recognized the inhabitant as the motorcycle-taxi driver who had helped him on the day of the earthquake. Rather than thanking him or showing compassion, however, the purported landowner and his men humiliated him, calling him and his fellow camp residents “dogs,” and promising to destroy all the camp’s tents on July 29th without giving “even one gourde” compensation to anyone. If people were still in the tent camp when the purported landowner returned, they would “beat” residents. Other camp residents reported that the intruders threatened to return next time with a tractor to destroy their camp and “throw them into the ocean.”
Not content to threaten the camp in these blatant ways, it appears to community members that the purported landowner has also deceitfully sought influence over the camp’s Management Committee. Upon seeing the head of the camp’s Crisis Committee, Jean*, welcome us into the camp that day, the president of the Management Committee—who certain residents suspect is being paid off by the purported landowner—stopped us in our tracks. He informed us that everything Jean was telling us was a “lie.” When we were later out of earshot of the Management Committee, Jean confided that he felt himself in physical danger. He told us that the Management Committee had informed him that the purported landowner’s men would come to his tent first when they returned, because of his role in organizing his community. Jean expressed fear that the purported landowner’s men would assault him as a reprisal for speaking to journalists and lawyers.
Two days before our visit and not even 12 hours after a BAI lawyer and grassroots leader had visited the camp to give a Know Your Rights training to the residents, one resident—a member of the camp’s security team—was shot three times in the head and killed. The residents explained that they did not know if his murder had anything to do with the threats of eviction or the fact that the camp was beginning to mobilize against the threats, but it is telling that the two events occurred so close in time. The next day at a press conference held at the BAI, camp residents made sure the Haitian public knew about the murder, as well as the forced eviction they are facing, to raise society’s awareness of their increasing insecurity.
Over 3,000 people, many of them small children, live in Camp Centre d’Herbergement in conditions of increasing precarity and doubt. No one knows when to expect another armed rampage by the purported landowner’s men, or if they will make good on their promise to annihilate the camp altogether. Yet these 3,000 individuals are not “squatters,” living in the camp by choice. Rather, they are victims made homeless and vulnerable by the earthquake of January 12th who quite simply have nowhere else to go. This armed incursion—with its accompanying destruction and intimidation—throws lives already ravaged by disaster into even greater desperation. Absent a comprehensive housing plan that is put into action as soon as possible by the Martelly government—coupled with official denunciations of the ongoing public and private threatened and forced evictions of IDPs—earthquake victims face an indefinite period of continued exposure to violence, human rights violations, and insecurity.