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