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Surviving in Haiti
Haiti is a reminder of a lesson we in New Orleans got after Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees: the capacity of humanity to survive

Surviving in Haiti

Haiti is a reminder of a lesson we in New Orleans got after Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees: the capacity of humanity to survive

Haiti is a reminder of a lesson we in New Orleans got after Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees: the capacity of humanity to survive, sustain culture and create joy – no matter the external circumstances – is without limit. That capacity is unsinkable, like trying to keep a cork underwater.

Ronal Toussaint, who sometimes takes me around in his taptap – a pickup converted to public transport vehicle – on especially meeting-packed days, and who walks with a permanent limp from a building having fallen on him during the earthquake, evinced the spirit of resistance so common here. “We do so much with so little. People here can take anything and make it work. Just give us a little bit and we’ll fix this country.”

I hear variations of this sentiment every day from people in the streets and from activists in the progressive movement. When I ask for assessments from colleagues in small farmer, women, human rights, popular media, and other sectors, they respond with comments like this one by economic justice advocate Ricot Jean-Pierre: “I can’t say we’re advancing yet; you know the challenges are so big. But they say it’s darkest just before daybreak.” An old friend, a community organizer whom I know would not want her name cited, gave a similar analysis as we shared cups of sweet coffee. “This country is no good. Really it’s no good. But what can you do? We’re just going to keep throwing everything we have into making it better.”

But it sure would help if Haitians had survival resources other than individual strength and courage and collective organizing.

The suffering of the people is as unimaginable as is the poor planning or sheer neglect of their government, the United Nations, and large international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). As for the estimated 1.5 million Haitians who live in roughly 1,300 internally displaced people’s camps (the numbers being rough guesses, as no census has been taken), three recent reports by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti et al., Professor Mark Schuller and Refugees International paint dismal pictures. Here are just a few facts and figures from one report, from a five-month survey of 90 camp-dwelling families:

  • In more than half of the families, the children went at least one entire day in the prior week without eating at all;
  • 44 percent primarily drink untreated water;
  • 78 percent live without enclosed shelter;
  • 27 percent have no option but to defecate in a bucket, plastic bag or open ground in the camp;
  • 37 percent of families have no form of income whatsoever.[1]

An exposé by the new investigative journalist group Haiti Grassroots Watch found that – though the government has never mentioned it – a national plan for relocation does exist, but that it appears almost impossible to implement. Excerpted here are some of its findings.

A piecemeal, only vaguely coordinated and as-yet unofficial “Return and Resettlement Strategy, Draft 5” appears to have been underway [by NGOs, multilateral agencies and foreign government assistance agencies] for the past month or two. It is not led by the Haitian government. Instead, agencies pursue their own projects with some loose coordination provided by UN-organized Shelter Cluster staff.

The plan calls for, in order of feasibility: “(1) return to the original area; (2) resettlement to the countryside where they are from or where they have land; and (3) relocation to a planned site, as the final choice.” The plan calls for camps to be progressively closed and for services to be progressively added to original neighborhoods and progressively diminished in the camps to create a “pull factor.”

Before building permanent homes, NGOs and agencies plan to build 135,000 transitional or T-shelters, which are 12- or 18-sq. meters, wooden or metal frame, plywood or plastic walls and tin roof. The cost, including transportation, customs and labor, is about $1,500 – $2,500 each. So far, about 15,000 have been built. The full 135,000 will not be completed until September 2011, according to a recent Shelter Cluster document. In the meantime, various NGOs, like the US-based CHF International are working on small neighborhood-based projects.[2]

Haiti Grassroots Watch notes reasons why this plan is unworkable. Quoting the group, a few challenges include:

  • Move families back to original homes – Challenge: What about the rubble? The capital and other cities affected by the earthquake are still encumbered with between 20 million and 30 million cubic meters of rubble. So far, only a small amount – estimates range from two to ten percent – has been removed. Delays in funding and also the fact that there is no single agency coordinating rubble removal, indicate that the rubble will be in the way for years to come.
  • Move families back to home – Challenge: Who will pay for house removal or repairs? According to the latest tallies, there are about 50,000 homes that need to be destroyed and cleared and another 54,000 to 64,000 needing to be repaired. Who will pay for and coordinate these massive public works projects? As of September 24, NGOs had only about 15 percent of the funding needed for the repairs.
  • Move families into 135,000 [transitional] T-Shelters – Challenge: Where to put the shelters? There are over 300,000 families currently in the camps. 159,749 families rented their home prior to January 12. NGOs don’t want to give a T-Shelters to a family that does not own the land or at least have a proper, long-term lease. A PowerPoint prepared by the Shelter Cluster [noted] that no land has been made available to host affected population in new camps/housing areas.[3]

A post-earthquake phenomenon even broader than the insecurity and abandonment of camp dwellers is increased poverty. What does an even poorer Haiti look like? The question is almost like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” To an untrained eye it may be difficult to distinguish pre- and post-earthquake levels of poverty and no statistics exist to quantify the difference. But survivors will tell you that the latter is much, much harder.

A sampling of comments I have heard from the mouths of women:

“We don’t have anything. It’s all under the rubble.”

“We don’t talk much any more, because we’re all in shock.”

“I have cold shivers all the time, like I’m in New York.”

“I lost my medicines in the earthquake, but I don’t have a way to get more.”

“None of us have houses or husbands any more.”

“Now it’s just a skeleton of a country.”

“The only things I have are the dress on my back and my nine children.”

Nozine Leclerc is a young friend who, after his own house collapsed, was violently evicted from one camp and has since moved among three others. His father was crushed in the earthquake. His mother, Esthère Miradieu, may have throat cancer; we do not know since her numerous attempts to get medical care have all been thwarted because she does not have the money for the tests the “free” clinics keep prescribing or the transportation to get them.

Nozine’s face has become deeply ridged since the quake, the bones standing up like the Andes. He has no income and survives through small gifts and acts of solidarity from friends and strangers. He owns nothing more than the contents of a little backpack. Most distressing to him is that he has no way to help his mother.

Last week Nozine told me, “I’m hoping to find redemption from my tribulation.”

He focused his eyes on me hard. “Do you think I will?”

Just when I begin to wonder how the human spirit can handle one more minute of suffering and struggle, I have experiences like these.

On an evening walk in the neighborhood of Croix des Pres, I swing left with the road and suddenly find myself in the middle of a refugee camp, with lean-tos made of wood, tin and tarps lining either side of the street. But this camp is different from most; it’s positively festive. Someone has put on loud compa music. Older women sit on stools or cement blocks – or, in one case, a smashed refrigerator turned on its side – and braid each other’s hair while sharing news. Some greet me as though I were a long-lost friend.

One woman wants to make sure I see her little son, but two-year-olds rarely get past me; we had already waved energetically at each other when I was still back a ways. His name is Jesley and he is elated to practice his high-five on me. His four-year-old sister tries out her French, asking “Tu t’en vas?” Are you leaving? Another little girl enthusiastically spins a long piece of black tape in a circle, arcing it high into the air.

The boys, as usual, dominate the scene with their volume and activity. One shrieking teenager is taking running leaps over a pile of burning garbage. Others play soccer on the steeply sloped road with a ball that more resembles a filthy round of yarn. A poor, little kid with no bargaining power keeps getting sent down the hill to retrieve it.

Four teens bathe in their shorts with gallon jugs of water, clearly relishing the chance to show off their sleek bodies. As I approach, one shouts, “Blan, foreigner, come bathe with us.” The crowd about loses it when I reply in Creole, “Oh, thanks, but I’m not really dirty right now.”

Five youth are deploying a very tall bamboo pole to try to liberate mangoes from high in a tree behind a garden wall. Soon they come marching to the center of the camp, holding the pole above their heads with their right hands and their stolen fruit aloft in their left hands, loudly singing a victory song.

The place is reminiscent of other camps I’ve visited where all the residents are neighbors, if not friends: they’ve come together from their surrounding shattered houses to recreate community and to help each other make the best of a horrible situation.

“People are surviving because they’re survivors,” said Jacques Bartoli, an art collector and apartment house owner. While that may be true, what if the Haitian government and international nations and agencies gave a little assist, stepping in with some of those billions of dollars in pledges and donations that have gone missing or just been squandered, and with an emergency resettlement plan that really addresses the urgency of the crisis?

Why should it all come down to people’s internal defenses?

To quote a woman from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “I’m tired of being resilient.”

A taxi driver laid it out as he gave me, together with many more people than were ever meant to fit into his compact Nissan, a ride across town. “Hello blan,” he said as I got in.

“Hello, Haitian.” I replied. “How are you?”

“My tarp is torn. The other night I was completely wet in the rain. But we’re children of God. Still, really, we need some help.”


1. Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti et al., “We’ve Been Forgotten: Conditions in Haiti’s Displacement Camps Eight Months after the Earthquake,” 2010, p. 1.

2. Haiti Grassroots Watch, “Part I – Who Is in Charge and What Is the Plan?

3. Haiti Grassroots Watch, “Part II – What Are the Challenges?