Haiti After the Earthquake: Life in the Ruins

Sometimes you can’t help but be hit by the behavior of certain international organizations helping Haiti recover from the devastating January 2010 earthquake—hit, that is, by a wave of real physical nausea.

| September/October 2013

Haiti After the Earthquake

Sometimes you can’t help but be sickened by the behavior of certain international organizations helping Haiti recover from the devastating January 2010 earthquake—hit, that is, by a wave of real physical nausea. The other day, I spent an afternoon in the displaced persons camp across from the ruins of St. Anne’s church in downtown Port-au-Prince. The place was awful, as awful as you can imagine squalid emergency living quarters might be—homes consisting of tent, tarp, tin, sheets, plywood, some cardboard—after three years of dust, dirt, sewage, torrential storms and, to top it off, Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least 54 people in Haiti.

Across the street from the camp, where an estimated 600 families are living, Chérestal Jean-Fougère, a camp leader, showed me the portable toilets that had been brought in by relief agencies in the first days after the earthquake. For months, a cleaning company contracted by international relief organizations and consisting of men in rubber regalia came regularly to wash out these toilets with high-powered hoses connected to special pump trucks. I remember watching them back then and wondering how long this miracle could last. Now I have my answer: for the past six months at least, Jean-Fougère said, no one has come to clean. The contract for the job has run out.

It shows. At the edge of the rocky field that was once the St. Anne sanctuary, the five or six portable toilets are festering shit holes, overflowing with stinking excrement and pieces of cardboard that have been used as toilet paper. On some, the doors hang open on broken hinges. “No one goes into these anymore,” Jean-Fougère told me. I asked him where residents font leurs besoins now, and he pointed to the curb and also to a gaping hole in the street. When I looked down into this, I saw brackish brown water, glinting and moving. This is the water the camp residents also use for laundry and bathing, Jean-Fougère added.

I toured the camp with Jean-Fougère and some others, a tight scrum of kids and teenagers traveling in our wake. He talked about the usual crises of these camps: gang rapes, routine robberies. (“Stealing what?” I wondered as I peered into the raggedy, unfurnished tents and shacks.) We squelched over a swatch of black carpeting being used to absorb rainwater in front of one older woman’s tent. Behind her living area, family groups were stacked, as if in an apartment building, in the nooks and crannies of a playground set that dated back before the earthquake, when this space across from the church was a well-kept public square known as the Place St. Anne. One family occupied the jungle-gym section of the playground, another the platform above the yellow plastic slide. Two more families had set up house under the slide, behind walls made of daisy-patterned sheets. Xavier François, an elderly man, smiling and skeletal, told me his family was killed in the earthquake. He lives nearby under a flapping, deflated tent that hovered three feet above the ground and barely covered a bed frame with no mattress but some old plastic sheeting on it. François had nothing else in this abode.

Now, I’m not blaming the condition of these people entirely on the international organizations. But in the past half-year, outside efforts have created a serious problem. Last spring and summer, several groups working together, including the colossal International Organization for Migration, continued to depopulate a number of camps by offering residents $500 per family to move out. With this $500, displaced people are able to afford rent in noncamp housing for about a year. People living in many of the biggest and most visible camps were given money and relocated, and those camps were taken down.

This was an achievement of sorts, even though many of the people who moved ended up in rubble-strewn neighborhoods or, worse, in windswept interim camps outside the capital, square-box townships with no nearby commerce or jobs or culture. It could be argued that the original post-earthquake camps were worse than these newly slapped-up places, although some of the camps had a lively Haitian bustle that’s totally absent in the new townships. The camp people who wanted to be out soon told me they refused to remain for another Christmas; once Christmas was past, they said, they would not submit to a third earthquake anniversary in the camp. But here they were, still in the St. Anne camp just days before the January 12 anniversary.