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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

Refugee camp Haiti 5
A refugee camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. (Ron Haviv/VII/GlobalPost)

Inside Haiti's camps, row after row of despair

Chapter Two: Built as temporary housing, Haitian refugee camps become "voluntary prisons."

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.

“Out here, away from the city, the people are just existing. It’s a voluntary prison.”
~Genant Blot, secretary general of Terroir Toto

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