Twenty-Four Hours in a Haitian Camp

Twenty-Four Hours in a Haitian Camp

It is 2:00 PM in what used to be the neighborhood of Croix des Prez in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After the “catastrophe” of January 12, 2010, it became Camp Croix des Prez, only one of the many camps in which over 600,000 still live. Four months after the earthquake, it looks as though the destruction took place yesterday. Concrete dust, rubble, trash, half-collapsed buildings, rusted tin and tents make up the geography of Croix des Prez. It is a landscape on tilt.

I am here to spend the next 24 hours living in the camp. I’ve just flown in from Missoula, Montana, where I am a professor of literature at the University of Montana. I landed in the country a few days ago and, now, I am about to spend 24 hours in Croix des Prez. I’m not undertaking this action lightly. This is not disaster tourism, nor is this a stunt that takes its direction from American reality television. The camps in Port-au-Prince are notoriously dangerous sites of contagion, rape, violence and death.

These are precisely the conditions many Haitians have had to live with every day since the earthquake happened, and I have been invited by KOFAVIV, a local women’s organization, to learn first-hand and on the ground what life is like in the camps. I am as prepared as I think I can be, which, in hindsight, is to say not at all prepared. Despite all my research and planning, nothing could have made me truly ready for the reality of Croix des Prez.

My expectations will be challenged immediately. As I wait for my camp contact Blaise Laloune to arrive, I realize that I am standing on top of the roof of a collapsed house. Other people are standing there with me. It is a difficult reality to take in. Wilclair Jean, a man who waits with me, realizes what I am thinking and says to me, “68 people died here.” He gestures around the camp while he tells me, “We are standing on their bodies; they are under us and we walk on them everyday.” In a statement that somehow sums up the general situation of failure on the part of the international aid organizations in Haiti, Jean says, “No one has come to help us to get them out.” It is a phrase I will hear many times over before I leave the camp: “No one has come to help.”

One man I meet asks me, “Has the world forgotten Haiti?” From the looks of Croix des Prez and the other camps I have visited, the answer has to be “Yes.” In the ways that most matter – providing for people’s basic human needs – the world indeed seems to have forgotten Haiti.

The women of KOFAVIV are frustrated. They want the world to know that Haiti still struggles. The women can’t understand why, four months after the earthquake, with all the money donated to them, they continue to live in conditions that are profoundly dangerous, unsanitary and unfit for human habitation. Now that I am here, I can’t understand it either.

How could this situation, one that is quite frankly unimaginable for anyone who isn’t here to see, smell, hear and breathe it, be allowed to continue? It as if, four months after the collapse of the World Trade Towers, no reconstruction work had been done and Americans were living in the ruins of the buildings, cooking meals, bathing their children, struggling with each other for scarce resources and living their lives without much hope for the future.

But this isn’t America, where our disasters are most often addressed and ameliorated somehow; this is Haiti. At 3:00 PM, the temperature at Croix des Prez is close to 100°, but, as I’ve found out, inside people’s “houses” the temperatures are at least 10° hotter. Made of corrugated tin, scraps of wood, plastic, tarps, even paper, the homes are more like ovens at this time of the day. There are approximately 50 of these dwellings in Croix de Prez and about 350 people live here. It is a small camp that covers an area of about one-eighth of a square mile. There isn’t a lot of room at Croix des Prez, but there are so many people.

At 4:00 PM, David Schmidt and I enter Monsieur Raimond’s house, a ten-foot by ten-foot shack with a tarp roof that sags a bit under what is left of last night’s rain. The home contains two mattresses elevated off the packed dirt floor, one chair without a seat, a small charcoal grill and not much else. It is as neat and tidy as such a place can be, with cooking and serving vessels and utensils packed into homemade shelves propped along the walls. The adults sleep on the beds and the children sleep on the floor on carpet scraps that are currently seething with flies.

David speaks in Kreyol to Monsieur Raimond to ask him about life in the camp. I notice a glass gallon jug on the floor that contains about two cups of cloudy water. I try hard to listen to what the elderly man of the house is telling us. I don’t want to think about water and how much I’d like to drink some. As we leave and I say goodbye in Kreyol (“orvwa“), Monsieur Raimond, who is blind, understands that I am a woman. He had not known that. He says my name with recognition, “Ah, Katie,” and tells me in French, “Je suis enchanté.” We all laugh. He reminds me of my grandfather, who was equally courtly and polite.

From 4:00 PM until 7:30 PM that evening, Monsieur Raimond’s story will be repeated again and again in the houses we visit. Potable water is not available. It must be purchased and it is expensive in a country with an 80 percent unemployment rate. Many people drink and bathe in dirty water and get sick as a result. Food is also still hard to come by. One woman, who is alone and whose four children live with her in her home, says that she is not able to eat every day. Her children listen to her talk to us and then look at me. They look at me as if I can help them and, of course, I can’t. I have nothing to give them to eat. I think about my five children and how much they have to eat and how safe they were when they were small.

The story is the same for almost every member of Croix des Prez: food, water, shelter, security, employment and education are basic needs that are still unmet. Aid is often promised, but does not come or is given only a few times. Dwelling places are open to the elements. Today, the floors in a number of the “houses” are still wet, muddy even. In many cases, the walls of the homes are full of holes where the sun shines through. Later, because it is the rainy season, water will pour in through those same openings. Water and garbage flow right now through the trenches dug into the dirt trails that pass between the houses of the camp. I am very careful where I walk. I worry about the children who wander around in their bare feet. I can’t imagine what it would be like to raise children in this kind of place.

At 5:30 PM, Blaise arranges for David and me to meet with a group of women. They speak of their sense of profound vulnerability. For Haitian women, the threat of rape is a shadow that falls over them as the sun goes down. In some camps, members of KOFAVIV and FAVILEK (another women’s organization) sleep in shifts at night to combat the post-earthquake epidemic of gender-based violence. One woman tells me, “How can I hope to be safe when I don’t even have a door?” “Anyone can come in,” she says pointing to her house and then to her daughter. She starts to cry. I force myself not to weep with her, and tell her thank you in Kreyol. I mean something much more than thank you, but I am completely inadequate in my response.

For men, the issue of jobs is particularly important. While we move from house to house in one of the narrow alleyways that make up a maze of tin, wood and plastic between the houses, we come across Mathieu Dalmacy who is sitting outside his house playing his guitar. His response to our questions about conditions in the camp is startling in its intense, sharp critique of the work of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and aid organizations in Haiti.

“A job comes first, that’s how I see it,” says Dalmacy. “They have to create jobs for people. These international organizations might have come to help us for real, but I know and see that the people do not get what they are supposed to get. Here in Haiti this is the way it is: the big men get their share first. Maybe if those international organizations would have worked with the grass roots they would have gotten better results. For example, in my neighborhood there are a lot of homes that were destroyed. Is one of those international organizations willing to give me a job?”

Dalmacy talks to us about a number of other issues – dislocation, loss of land and the “50K cars” that he sees NGO officials driving around in – but he leaves us with a song he has written about Haiti. It is beautiful and heart wrenching: “Haiti you are suffering. / Haiti I love you very much / and you mean everything to me. / Even though things are hard / I am waiting for the day / when things get better. / If our ancestors, Toussaint and Dessalines were to rise from the dead / they would weep for you, Haiti.”

By the time we are done interviewing people our first day, it is almost 8:00 PM. Despite the protests of Blaise and Nadège Maître, another member of KOFAVIV, I cannot eat. It is too much to listen to people who are starving and malnourished and then to eat – at least it is too much for today. David and I imagine that we will just turn in early. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Blaise returns with three men, one is the guitarist, Dalmacy. He has brought his instrument and some clairin, a local moonshine made out of molasses. We will be up for hours singing songs about Haiti and about love and, courtesy of David, there will be a bit of Bob Marley, songs of the Mexican revolution, Chuck Berry and the Beatles thrown into the mix.

Children dance and play with the water bottle rattles that David has shown them how to make. Blaise’s son asks if he can sleep with me and Nadège, and I talk about her desire to keep studying languages, an educational project that was interrupted by the destruction of her school in the quake.

We are up until 11:00 PM when Blaise decides that we have had enough, dismisses the group and assigns a man to spend the night in our tent with us for our security. It is hard to fall asleep. It is hot, the ground is hard and there is a man I don’t know sleeping in the same tent. But, I tell myself, I am not sleeping in a small, confined space with eight other people. I am not lying on a muddy carpet scrap while flies buzz around my head. I am not hungry or thirsty and I will not dream of the men who came to my home last month to try to take my daughter from me.

Six o’clock AM the next day, I wake early to find David already up and ready to work. In addition to interviewing a few additional people and continuing to document conditions in the camp, our primary job for the day will be to buy the materials for an afternoon meal that we will make together, Americans and Haitians.

We leave for the market place at 8:00 AM. With our money, Blaise and Nadège are able to bargain for fish, rice, mushrooms, plantains, and other ingredients at a much larger market place than the one in Croix des Prez. We return home and begin processing and cooking the food on an outdoor charcoal grill. Everything has to be prepared outside. The conditions are difficult, although the women don’t seem to mind. There are no chopping boards and no tables. There is no kitchen sink and no garbage can.

The women laugh at my inability to properly chop cooked beets, or for that matter to successfully execute any task I’m given. They are patient with me. The knives have no handles: they are only blades, and the vegetables are really hot. I’m a mess of beet and lime juice, fish scales, salt and charcoal smoke by the time all is said and done. But the food is wonderful.

Haitian cuisine is a marvelous mélange of French, African and Spanish influences. The menu the women planned for us included poisson rouge (red snapper), riz djon-djon (black mushroom rice), pickliz (a spicy coleslaw), salade russe (beets, carrots and potatoes) and ju sitwan (the best limeade I have ever had). Blaise makes sure that everyone eats. We’ve managed to buy for and to help make food for about 40 people.

After the meal, the women and I do the dishes in pots of water. I use a plastic bag to wash things since there are no dishrags. Everybody is happy, but tired. It has been a lot of work and it is now 3:00, officially past the 24-hour mark. We have been in the camp for over a day. All that remains is to take a few last photos and to say goodbye to the women, men and children and thank them for their patience and for their hospitality.

We will leave behind us the living conditions that the people of Croix des Prez will continue to struggle with on a daily basis, without hope for change in the near future. Soon, both David and I will go home to the United States. We will go home to a shower, a dry place to sleep, to potable water, dependable sanitation and to an abundance of food and security.

All of what I have told you about Croix des Prez and about the camps in Port-au-Prince is true, but what is also true and, perhaps, most troubling about this story, is the fact that approximately $37,000 per individual Haitian has been raised by various aid organizations for disaster relief in Haiti. According to a recent CBS news report, in some cases only 7 percent of funds donated by Americans and others around the globe have been spent by aid organization. The best of the groups polled, The Red Cross, has spent 25 percent of its donations for “emergency relief” in the form of tents, shelters, cooking implements and food. In the case of each organization, the rest of the money is being held in abeyance for “long term” development in Haiti’s “future.” Even 7 percent of $37,000, which is $2,600, should be enough to buy a tent with a floor.

As I finish writing this article about Croix des Prez in the late evening on Friday May 21, it is raining in Haiti. It is raining hard and, unusually, it has been raining for four hours. I am dry, but in the camp houses are coming apart and falling down. The people are awake and wet. They are suffering. Men and women, grandparents and children, all are awake, I am sure of that. As they told us, when it rains, they have to stand up ankle deep in mud and water inside their homes, trying desperately to keep themselves and whatever possessions they can hold from getting completely drenched.

These people who have cooked for us and taken care of us will stand up inside their homes in the rain for hours, keeping a wet, miserable and familiar vigil. When the rain stops, they will try to clean up and go back to sleep in mostly wet and muddy clothes and bedding. While they sleep – if they sleep – garbage and sewage will continue to flood into their living spaces under the wood, metal and plastic walls of their homes.

In the ways that matter most, then, you and I have, in fact, forgotten Haiti. As I have said, the answer to the question I was asked when I entered the camp must be yes: yes, the world has forgotten Haiti. But, this forgetting, this global turning away, is not final. We must find a way to truly see into Haiti’s camps. We must truly try to understand the lives and suffering of the people who live there. We must insist that the money we helped raise and gather for our fellow human beings be spent wisely, but spent now and spent in consultation with Haitian people at the grassroots as well as governmental levels.

A truncated version of this article was published in the Missoulian.