“Collapsed house, no number” is an old expression that Haitians uses to indicate that their flimsy homes of sticks-and-mud or shoddy cement blocks have finally fallen apart.
Today that expression could serve as the motto for the capitol city of Port-au-Prince.
Take Helia Lajeunesse, an unemployed children’s rights activist. When her little house on the side of a gaping green sewer in the Martissant slum collapsed in the earthquake, she moved herself and three of her surviving children to the cement courtyard of nearby St. Bernadette Church. Within the church gates, Helia and her family spend their nights with at least 700 others. “Here is where we go when it rains,” she said, pointing to an outer church wall. “We stand here all night long. And here’s where I keep my stuff. This neighbor watches it for me.” She gestured to a woman sitting beside a pile of bundles wrapped in sheets. “And here’s where we wash,” indicating a thin rivulet of water running down a wide crack in the sidewalk. “Yes, really. Me and the kids. Where else are we going to get water?”
Members of the middle and upper classes who lost their homes in what people here call ‘the event’ typically moved in with friends or relatives with space to spare, or rented an apartment or hotel room. The homes of the poor collapsed in far higher percentages, both because of the inferior construction of the houses and their placement on the sides of ravines and other insecure spots; in those cases, few had a place to turn for substitute shelter. Port-au-Prince has thus become a city of refugee camps. In most open spaces – an out-of-business Hyundai dealership, the landing strip of the old airport, a rare city park, the edges of slums, the courtyards of schools – the displaced have spontaneously created their own camps. Estimates of the numbers of camps and their residents differ greatly.
International aid agencies talk about their tent distribution program, but it is not obvious where the programs are in operation. Isolated Coleman camping tents rest amidst lean-to’s on streets throughout town, making roads so narrow that cars can barely pass. This observer has seen tents in groups of several dozen only a handful of times. In these cases, the plastic walls are printed variously with UNICEF, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, the Buddhists of Taiwan.
Many humanitarian aid tents go to people with connections. For those not well enough networked, they can buy one in the black market which has sprung up around the commodity. “I got this for $110,” Mezilla Youyoute explained as she showed off an octagonal blue-and-white tent nestled amidst a maze of slapped-up shelters. A French man she knew donated the money for her purchase. “Pretty good price, huh?”
In today’s Haiti, tents are luxury living.
The dominant form of shelter is a bedsheet attached atop and around four sticks, most of those sticks smaller than a woman’s wrist. Those better-off use a tarp for a roof. Some enterprising builders have made collage walls of cardboard, strips of tin, broken 2x4’s, and foam – and in one case, a U.S. flag. But more often it’s bedsheets, no floor. Or, as in Helia’s case in the church yard, there is no shelter at all, nothing but a slab of cement under the body.
And now the rains have arrived in Port-au-Prince. They come every few nights and crash for hours with gale force. Until the climate change of recent years, it rained annually between May and October, but now the season has become unpredictable. When it rains, those living on the streets stand or sit up all night long.
The shacks and lean-to’s in the no-address camps are often no wider apart than a human body, and some of the paths are muddy with water or sewerage. The stench of human waste is strong. Flies, mosquitoes, and trash abound.
Always more vulnerable in conditions of crisis, women in these outdoor spaces are enduring extreme levels of violence, both rapes and beatings, according to grassroots advocates. Cassandre St. Vil’s analysis is that rape might have been just as prevalent before the earthquake had the rapists had the easy access to their prey they have today, with tens of thousands of girls and women sleeping in the streets. A newly homeless 18-year-old who speaks softly with downcast eyes, Cassandre was raped by four men. “Raped and raped and raped,” she said. She could not find any police then, and has no idea where to file a complaint now. The entire justice system, weak before January 12, appears nonexistent to most citizens’ eyes now.
Despite the conditions, life is busily underway in the refugee camps. A glance around one during an afternoon walk revealed: A baby taking her first steps. Two men in underwear bathing with buckets in a trash-strewn, empty fountain. A girl running, laughing, down the sidewalk pushing an older boy in a wheelbarrow, until she tripped and dumped him. A teenage girl scrubbing an umbrella in a bucket. A man and his son hammering 2x2 panels of rusted metal together to form their new house. A girl combing another’s hair. A woman filling tin bowls with food for her children. Barefoot boys pulling with strings trucks they’ve fashioned from tin cans. A baby sleeping on a sheet, her body thickly surrounded by flies. A small group listening to a static-y radio emission. A boy with his foot in a shoddy cast sitting quietly, alone. A toddler walking down a path carrying a quart-sized plastic bucket filled with garbage; his mother walking behind him carrying a five-gallon plastic bucket filled with garbage.
People in the camps report that no one has told them what their fates may be. A rumor has gone around that those in public spaces will be evicted and sent to the town of Croix des Bouquets soon. Another rumor is that all the camps are going to be going to concentrated into a few, each containing 50,000 to 100,000 people. “They’ll just recreate the slums,” commented one woman. The mayor of Delmas declared over the radio that people must vacate school yards by the end of January. “Just watch him try to get them out,” someone remarked.
Soldiers with weapons appear at random times and in random neighborhoods to distribute rice. In those instances, word spreads quickly on the streets and people run to line up. “Why can’t they tell us when they’re coming?” said a man residing in one camp on a traffic-clogged thoroughfare. “We make schedules. Why can’t they?” For those who have lost everything and thus lack stoves, cooking the rice often proves impossible. Some of this group line up anyway, for they can sell the rice and use the money to buy food they can eat.
In some larger camps, like those surrounding the ruined National Palace, the UN and other international agencies have brought in non-potable water for washing. At times aid workers bring in free drinking water, though some who have drunk it claim it have them diarrhea. Excluding this water, the erratic hand-outs of uncooked rice, those sparsely distributed tents, and new clinics established by groups like Doctors without Borders and Partners in Health, homeless citizens report receiving no goods, services, or information. The survivors are left to their own devices to find drinking water, bathing water, bathroom systems, food, cooking systems, electricity for charging cell phones, psychological care, and security. This is in a context in which most refugees lost not only everything they owned, but also their cache of merchandise to sell on the streets in the informal economy, and often their jobs; money to obtain necessities is in extremely short supply.
In one camp, a visitor with no official function asked, “Who all has come to check on you?” A resident replied, “You.”
Members of some camps have organized themselves to watch over each other. In some cases, elected mayors and vice-mayors have created volunteer teams to provide security for the area and to seek outside aid interventions. Some have hammered signs stating their needs on telephone poles, like “Camp Africa. Need: food, water, medicines, tents.” In at least one camp, residents have taken tallies of the number of pregnant women, babies, sick people, and children living there, and try to ensure that the medical needs of all are met. In another, a grassroots women’s group is circulating ‘know your rights’ tracts to women, and intervening in cases of violence. Still other camps have organized informal education programs for the children, since all schools except a very few private ones are closed.
Laurent Manel, a community organizer who lost everything except his family, said, “The government has primary responsibility for us. They’re the ones who take our taxes. But they’re totally irresponsible. They didn’t even take responsibility for getting people out from under crushed buildings. We did that with our own fingers.”
Wearing clothes that she said were the only thing she was left with after her house turned to rubble, Marjorie Dupervil said, “I don’t expect anything from the state. There is no state.”
Some refugees amuse themselves by quoting to each other one of the few public comments that President Rene Preval made in the days following the earthquake: “I lost my palace.”
The statute of limitations on patience may be running out. “Haitians aren’t zombies,” Josette Perard of the Lambi Fund said. Protests against the government have commenced. A large one occurred last week in front of a police headquarters, with people denouncing the absence of government response and the way that aid is being distributed. Speakers shouted over microphones that housing, food, medical care, and work were their rights. Bill Clinton’s visit on on February 5 met with demonstrators demanding aid and rights, as did Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit on February 17. Protesters with similar messages take to the streets in small groups on a near-daily basis.
“The government had better watch out,” said Carolle Pierre-Paul Jacob of Solidarity Among Haitian Women. “The camps could quickly become sites of resistance.”
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
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