Inside Haiti's camps, row after row of despair

A refugee camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.</p>

A refugee camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

TERROIR TOTO, Haiti – Now, two years after the earthquake, when visiting the refugee camps, like this one about 10 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the place looks, well, pretty good.

At least, compared to how it looked in the more recent aftermath.

Here at Terroir Toto, there are small, neat and brightly painted houses along gridded and dusty streets. The houses have shady front porches and windows with screens. They were constructed by Catholic Relief Services. At this camp, for example, 802 shelters house roughly 6,000 displaced people according to the camp’s Coordinator General, Simon Huberman, “The job was to get them out of the tents, and into stable homes,” says Huberman. “The total cost of these permanent shelters was $3.2 million dollars. Other donations got them water and food and sanitation. Then we had to begin to move forward.”

But, as the people in ‘Toto’s’ houses and along its streets say, all is not well.

In fact, far from it.

One local, Renand, says “there is fresh water, food. There is some safety in the camp, but no real work. We just have to look for work…and the toilets are terrible.”

There are 520,000 people who are still homeless. And more than 70 percent of the workforce is under- or unemployed. Most Haitians do not have running water, a toilet or access to a doctor. Cholera has claimed thousands of lives and remains a major threat to public health. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Genant Blot, the camp’s Secretary General, agrees with Renand that conditions are bad and that despair infects the displaced.

“They have shelter and food. But they are right, there are still problems that can be improved. And out here, away from the city, the people are just existing. It’s a voluntary prison,” says Blot.

Of course, these days, two years after the earthquake, even a ‘voluntary prison’ looks pretty good. Two years ago, just after the catastrophe, there were displaced people everywhere around Port-au-Prince. More than 60,000 of them went to one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and set up ramshackle camps on the country club golf course: the only one in the city.

Management of the camps was, in part, tasked to the US military’s Joint Task Force Haiti. Also fully devoting himself to the cause of improving life for the people in the camp was the actor Sean Penn, who was working tirelessly on the displaced people’s behalf. In fact, on September 21, 2010, at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting’s opening morning at the Sheraton in New York, while briefing the group on his work on the island, President Bill Clinton himself noted that, any time he turned around, “… there was Sean Penn.”

"Let me make this clear. I am 100 percent behind the decision on Corail. It was a question of giving people a place to go away from the worst camp in the country. It was an emergency situation, and the brass tacks are that it was a question of prevention." — Sean Penn

(Ron Haviv/VII)

But even with Sean Penn and the US Army, the job was still overwhelming. Rains and mud became a problem. Sanitation — meaning potential cholera —might soon be a threat. As might mosquito-borne viruses like malaria and dengue fever. After another heavy set of rain — more mud and standing water — Joint Taskforce Haiti commander Gen. Ken Keene, Penn, and several Haitian officials decided that, to ease the population pressure, 5,000 people should be moved to a location about nine miles north of Port-au-Prince with the assistance of the US Military Engineering Battalion. It was called Corail-Cesselesse. The Haitian government already owned and controlled the land. It was large, and might be less prone to flooding.

Facing only future trouble on the golf course, the movement of some of the displaced was really the only choice. They American Red Cross came through by offering hygiene kits and a $50 payment to anyone who moved. The engineering battalion began to go to work at “Corail.” They mobilized tents, and several days later, began to ferry out the refugees.

One again, Haiti’s luck was not good. The sun beat down on the gravel the Engineers laid beneath the tents to help with drainage. The heat radiated all night long. The white tents were not that well ventilated. Several tents blew away in a violent, pop-up rain storm. Still, even with the difficulties, Sean Penn believes it was the right thing to do. “Let me make this clear,” he says. “I am 100 percent behind the decision on Corail. It was not General Keen’s decision or mine. It was a question of giving people a place to go away from the worst camp in the country. It was an emergency situation, and the brass tacks are that it was a question of prevention. It was immediate. It was necessary. What to do with people later, longer term, in camps and things, that’s a different mission. We were dealing with prevention of disease. We asked who might be ready to move, and several thousand people came forward.”

So while the choice to begin sending people to Corail might have been problematic, it was the best option at the time. And that the time, there were no good options. “We had to move,” Penn says.

Today, two years later, much like at Toto, things at Corail are settled and calm. Though one man, Jean Amos, who is sitting and listening to a report from Radio France International on a hand-held shortwave on the main street, looks around and says that in this camp it’s the same story as everywhere in camps around Port au Prince these days.

“Look, on this main street,” he says, pointing, “this is where almost all the toilet buildings are. It is the Boulevard of Toilettes. And each is painted with an Oxfam International logo…facing the camp’s largest street. So Oxfam can get the credit, and maybe some donations.”

The early public schools at Corail, run by WorldVision, have been shuttered and the only school is a private one, College Vision Mondiale, which is open Monday to Friday.

At the camp’s dispensary, which is still open, I engage with an ambulance driver who doesn’t want to give his name. “Most of the institutions have left,” he says. “There is little work. I am lucky. But the people here now, this is their new home. Probably forever.”

The people at Corail, however, are doing what they can to create a new life. At the foot of the village is a cinder-block shell of a new grand marche, with outlying garden plots, already marked off and irrigated, that will eventually provide some of the vegetables for the store.

“It’s interesting to watch the new economies springing up around the camps.” Says David Gootnick, Director of International Affairs and Trade at the U.S. General Accounting Office. “At this point it’s all small stuff. It’s one-offs. Gardens. A day of construction labor here and there. People have shops in their houses, selling things. But there is an economy starting to grow there. And it is growing. It’s just going to take a while. Nothing happens overnight.”

But why has it taken so long. Two years?

“We don’t like to use the word 'slow' around here,” he says. “We like the word ‘delay’ more. Haiti is a hard place to work. The infrastructure needs help. And, frankly, the money allocated and being directed there may not have completely arrived yet because we don’t want to just throw it at a problem, but create new opportunities. We’ve identified three different corridors on the island for economic growth, and we’re being judicious. Still, what I can say is all of that allocated money is already in the pipeline; It’s making its way there.”

Still, according to Penn, the money, help and habitat is still taking to much time to arrive. When asked why, two years later, Penn is still working hard for the displaced in Haiti, you can feel his exasperation. “UN Habitat hasn’t done jack squat,” he says. “Let me be declarative here. I’m doing this because Jean-Christophe Adrian [of Cities Alliance and the United Nations Habitat team] isn’t. That’s the whole answer. No, it’s bigger than that. We’re down to the last 20,000 people still displaced. Down from 60,000. But, we still have a lot of fucking work to do.”

Penn has only good things to say about President Clinton’s work in Haiti: “He’s been great, a real asset,” he says. “So to have the people on the Haiti desk in the current administration: just great.” 

ANOTHER SUNSET is coming. And back at the Corail camp, as I walk back down along the ‘Boulevard de Toilettes.’ A white, UN Security Landcruiser pulls up. Inside are two UN officers. They nice enough, but they’re technically not supposed to talk to reporters without permission.

“One question,” I ask. “How is the crime?”

“This place now?” he says. “It is very calm. Nothing really.”

Beyond policing efforts in the camps, there are also NGOs dedicated to reducing violence, particularly violence against women.

THE LOCAL AGENCY called Kofaviv (which is a Creole-French acronym for The Commission of Women Victims for Victims) is a friendly, welcoming place on the edge of the main city. They are an established organization, working against domestic violence and rape. As I sit and wait for one of the office staff, Sofanie Louis, a woman is sitting inside a pleasant-looking, glass-walled boardroom — its long wooden table down the middle — and she is talking about how she has been enduring domestic violence.

Finally, the interview is ended, and Sofanie Louis is free to talk.

“Kofaviv has 60 agents in the communities and camps,” she says. “And really, now that things have settled down, we don’t see nearly the violence and rape. Still, it exists, but maybe the statistics are half what they were.”

Still, she is not forthcoming with numbers and statistics.

Could we talk to someone who endured this experience post-earthquake?

“You’d have to bring back a female translator,” Sofanie Louis says. “And she’d have to do all the talking. This is very delicate. We have to maintain confidentiality and trust.” After leaning forward, she sits back in her chair. “We’ll call you if something comes up,” she says. She crosses her arms over her waist. There is a raw impatience and overall fatigue among so many people here who have been fighting so hard for so long to try to improve lives.

THESE hard-fought successes don’t mean violence and desperation aren’t easily visible around Port-au-Prince, though this was probably true before the earthquake, too. But the hunger and frustration and hand-to-mouth need at “food donation” sites around the city and beyond can’t help much, either.

One day, driving along in the neighborhood of Pawas (and in much the same way you find a higher incidence of white-paper coffee cups being held by people as you approach a corner Starbucks), photographer Ron Haviv notices a lot of people carrying white plastic sacks. On the side of the sacks is this:




On the bag is also a Taiwanese flag.

We round a corner, and there, at a Taiwanese organization called Chinque, a truck is off-loading the white bags. The flow of people is enormous. There is a lot of bagged food in the bed of that truck. There is such a need to keep order, police with shotguns are in evidence, and a man at the door brandishes a shotgun, too.

As we get out of the car, one of the police officers, the largest of the group, has grabbed a young, thin, man by the hair and, his weapon slung from his bulletproof vest, the policeman begins to conduct what the French call an “active interrogation.”

He slaps and punches the kid. When the young man admits what he’s done, the policeman tightly handcuffs him behind the back and pushes the young man to the ground. The kid hits his knees, then flops forward — face down — into the dusty street. The big officer sets a circular container of rice, itself set inside a square cardboard box, on the ground next to the young man. Evidence of some sort.

“What did he do?” I ask a smaller, friendlier policeman.

“They won’t let him in,” the policeman says, “so he waits and steals bags of food from the little girls on their way home. He has been doing this for months, and today we finally got him.”

Haviv and I were allowed inside. There, a manager is watching the gusts of people coming and going. He’s smiling “Is like this every day?” I ask. “Is it always like this?”

“We only deliver food on Wednesdays. And yes, always. It gets worse — more and more frantic — each Wednesday as the truck begins to empty.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.