April 4, 2010
(Port-au-Prince) Today is Easter, an important symbol of rebirth. Christians everywhere rejoice in the victory over death. In Haiti the faithful celebrate in ra-ra bands, processions in the street led by a brass band, often hand-fashioned instruments. Children fly hand-made kites, symbolizing the resurrection and hope.
This year there is little cause to celebrate, particularly for the many who lost their homes and family members. One ra-ra band snaked through the streets, and only a handful of kites rose up.
It rained three nights this week. The air is thick in addition to the heavy dust from fallen buildings. In the mornings after, squadrons of mosquitoes - possibly carrying malaria - circle overhead. Machin prive (private car, usually much newer than public transport) struggle with the mud puddles in the road.
Luckily the house is still standing and we didn't have to battle the elements while trying to sleep. A team of engineers from the Ministry of Public Works came by to inspect the five houses on the block that are still standing. After inspection the team tags the building with the French acronym MTPTC and the number of the team, one of nine roaming the remains of Port-au-Prince. Our house was tagged in yellow, meaning the house is structurally sound but requires major rehab.
Armed with sledgehammers, troops of four or five men clad in yellow MTPTC shirts chisel away at the remains of buildings already condemned, tossing blocks of cement and the intricate iron work to the street below, leaving only the iron rebar poles standing. Below, wheelbarrow-toting young men also in yellow move the rubble to large piles that can be bulldozed away. On one particular street this dozer was driven by a woman, adding a feminine touch to her yellow outfit.
Most of the streets have already been cleared by the will and collective labor of the survivors, and the taptap routes are functioning more or less normally, the taptap crowded as ever with people travelling across the city. Timachann (street merchants) - those whose bodies and goods have survived, anyway - have again taken their places along the street. Things would appear 'normal' in some neighborhoods seen from the street. Other parts of the city feel like a ghost town, as an eerie quiet betrays the 800,000 people now gone. Kabann kreyòl, a normally bustling open-air market with merchants selling hand-made bedroom furniture shouting at passersby, is now a shell of its former self, with only two men left, both of whom have long since lost their gusto.
Seen from atop my still-intact roof, however, the damage is overwhelming. Entire neighborhoods such as Fort-National have been leveled, people swelling the camps.
The rain is especially bad in these "tent cities." People who owned their house before the earthquake sleep in tents, even if their house is standing, out of fear for the next seismic event. They are lucky enough to still have a place to store their wares. When it rains, they are less affected since they have cement blocks from their house to elevate the tent. Better still if they have a tarp to sleep under.
This is not the case in the tent cities I have visited. The tents themselves vary greatly in quality, size, material, and shape. Some are simply makeshift domes of recycled plastic structured by PVC piping. In the Solino camp, housing some 6,000 people in the football field outside the local Catholic church, the tents are a thick plastic that rips easily and traps in the tropical heat. After the rains, for those whose tent is still structurally sound, the mud still seeps under the tents. The alleys between the uniform rows of tents are just wide enough for one person to pass, so it is impossible to avoid trudging through the mud or jump a puddle. The bottoms of the tents bear signs of this mud. Also owing to the narrow corridors, nowhere in the camp itself is there enough space to cook food. Said Handy Jean-Louis, a leader within Asanble Vwazen Solino (Solino neighbors assembly, AVS): "I hear in the news that blan complain that we sell our aid, but what good is the food if we can't cook it?" Getting food itself is a struggle, as the World Vision distribution site is a 20-minute walk away passing garbage-filled corridors, ravines, and streets.
Food aid here and all over Port-au-Prince follows a system of card distribution. NGO representatives or their chosen local committee (often created by this NGO itself) come by the night before and pass out cards to the women in the camp. Card holders enter U.N. checkpoints and queue up to receive the bags from a truck under U.N. guard, then leave another checkpoints to join their brothers or husbands who are waiting for them. Women begin lining up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and some all night, to wait for their aid to be given to them. Lambi Fund director Josette Pérard spoke for many: "It's humiliating to stand in line in the hot sun all day long."
We visited the Solino camp the day of the distribution. The cards were distributed between 11 p.m. and midnight. Everyone we talked with was there because they hadn't received a card. Nathalie, a 26 year old mother of three, said, "You can't afford to sleep when you hear that there's a card distribution. You never know where and when they will give it out. You just have to follow the noise of the crowd and hope you will get yours." Sylvie, who has 14 people - including her infant daughter and her sister's family - living in her ripped tent, said that she never got a card because she doesn't know the NGO representatives. "It's all about your people getting the goods," she said. Several people in this camp, and leaders with KOFAVIV, retold stories of women being propositioned for sex in exchange for cards. Other news stories and reports including INURED pointed out that this system of cards is easy to exploit.
There are alternatives to the cards. Many grassroots groups that existed before the quake like KOFAVIV and AVS who ran free schools for neighborhood children took a formal census of their members or of the camp. Elvire Constant, a leader with a group called Organisation Femmes en Action (OFA) along with five other committees have a list of all 11,867 residents in the St. Louis de Gonzague camp between the two busy thoroughfares of Delmas 31 and 33. The big NGOs doing distribution in the area chose not to work in collaboration with these groups and make use of the information collected. In the town of Gressier closest to the epicenter, on the coast between Carrefour and Léogâne, ITECA took a census of all families and distributed tents, dry goods, food, and stoves according to their needs, checking people off their list as they came for the relief supplies. Both models rely on trust, long-term relationships, and local decision-making, a far cry from the $1000-per day experts and 20-something NGO middle management flown in to run the aid distribution.
The result of this system of NGO patronage and lack of respect for local leadership and innovation is that many people are left behind.
The food distribution is not by any means the only problem in the camps. The proximity of the tents to one another, the flies buzzing around the mud puddles, and the waste join forces with another, more serious, issue to create a public health disaster. In Solino there are no latrines inside the camp for 6,000 residents, forcing people to either hold it and walk some 10 minutes away to an overused latrine across the ravine or do their business in a bag and throw it in said ravine later. When asked who is "in charge" of the camp, to whom people could demand necessities like latrines, no one could point to an agency. Sylvie just remembered it was the U.N. troops, MINUSTAH, who forcibly put them there: "They destroyed my house. I would have rather stayed there where it was at least dry." Her neighbor Magalie even preferred sleeping under her makeshift shanty of bedsheets on wooden posts "because it is too hot in here and the mud is trapped under the tent. In addition, my tent ripped, you see?"
In other camps, reskonsab (groups or people in charge) offer these basic human needs. Medecins Sans Frontières offered several areas a temporary set-up of wash water, latrines, and showers, all fashioned out of PVC and plastic. They and other agencies like French NGO GRET send trucks of water to fill the tanks, cisterns, or 4000-gallon storage bags.
In camps and neighborhoods with a grassroots social organization, these basic necessities are well-managed. Too many other areas have "Astroturf" associations created by the large distributing NGOs, the government, or the land owners themselves. Several camps such as Champs-de-Mars or St. Louis de Gonzague have committees that charge as much as five gourdes (13 cents) per person to use the toilet. KOFAVIV director Eramithe Delva who lives in the Champs-de-Mars camp with 15,000 others, pointed out the obvious: "who has the money to pay for that? A woman with three kids would have to pay 45 gourdes a day! What a story!"
Elvire Constant has another concern: "I wouldn't mind so much but there's a long line! You have to pray to God that you don't wet yourself while waiting in the sun!" She and other committee leaders built a latrine near the entrance of the camp, and kept a key but Father Patrick Belanger, the French director of the school on whose grounds they all stood, destroyed it because it sat underneath a cement wall that was still standing but damaged. "The priest was concerned with safety, that's true," said Constant. But he could have warned us to move it. Now we don't have any other choice. What's worse, someone could have been in there."
Constant and others have been concerned with the school director's policy of withholding aid from the camp residents. Samuel Rémy, with a group called Comité d'Action pour le camp de St. Louis (CAS), argued that this withholding was an attempt to starve people out. "They know that we need food, clean water, latrines, and other materials. But we here have no choice but to stay here so we find what we need outside." World Vision distributed food aid cards only once, mid-March. According to several neighborhood leaders, including Jean-Manno Paul with Regroupment des Victims de 12 Janvier (Network of Victims of January 12), the school director kept the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontières from providing services. On Saturday, a group of Cuban doctors sat sheepishly in the entrance, waiting for authorization.
According to the community leaders, this policy of starving people wasn't working, so Belanger and the school administration stepped up their efforts, calling in the mayor and police of Delmas to issue an order to vacate. The six community organizations intervened on the 11,000 residents' behalf, and the city government backed down.
Working with the national government who issued an order to re-open schools tomorrow, on April 5, the day after Easter, school administration attempted a "carrot" approach. According to government officials who preferred to remain anonymous, the government offered each of the six groups 20,000 gourdes and promised help finding open land. Three of the six groups toured the land this past week; instead of 14 hectares the dispersed sites only include 3. Leaders estimate that 2,500-3,000 people instead of the full 11,000 can stay there. All tracts of land are still unsuitable: none have water sources or latrines.
St. Louis de Gonzague is a long-standing institution that educates the children of the so-called "political class." The school had a meeting with parents yesterday and already cleared the entrance to the camp of some 800 people on either side. The irony of the situation is not lost on camp residents. Said CAS's Rémy, "We're ready to move if the government provides us with a suitable location, which includes school. If it's a natural disaster such as flooding we understand. But they are moving us so that the children of a small minority can have education. What about us residents? There are 3,000 children here. Don't we pèp la ("the people," poor majority) have a right to school as well?
In collaboration with other grassroots organizations, an effort to build a school inside the camp continues, as does the discussion between the six organizations and community regarding resettlement. Some appear more ready to leave under whatever conditions and some like CAS are more militant, denouncing the situation on local radio and promising resistance. A persistent rumor is spreading that the school will begin forcibly removing people at 1:00 tomorrow, Monday April 5, the first day of school. A grassroots movement of more than 30 local associations to demand permanent, quality, shelter from the government as a right.
At issue is how or even whether the government and donors who met last Wednesday in New York understand that survivors - and all people - have rights to water, food, education, and decent shelter. How and when these rights will be assured should be a matter of discussion not just in New York. True grassroots associations have the innovation, the organization, the information, the local respect, and the energy to find solutions, alternatives to the top-down model like the system of giving food cards and creating Astroturf groups to manage limited goods that excludes the majority of residents.
• The system of distribution needs to be overhauled and more inclusive, consulting with local residents and true grassroots organizations
• The food distributed should as much as possible include Haitian grown produce
• Decent shelter needs to be built and provided for everyone before people are moved from camps
• School needs to be provided for everyone, including children living in camps
Grassroots leaders call upon us to join them in denouncing these conditions as what they are, violations of human rights. Haiti's resurrection demands that the survivors direct this process of rebuilding, as many grassroots groups are already finding solutions on their own. There is a need for greater resources, but those who want to help need to be sensitive, careful, and humble. As always, focusing on our own governments' role and plan is appropriate and necessary.
Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. In addition to studying NGOs in Port-au-Prince since 2001, he is the co-editor of Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction.