While the heroes are watching

Champ de Mars homeless left hopeless

Part 1 of 2

Port-au-Prince, June 9 - It all happens right there, as the heroes watch: eating, grooming, relieving oneself, and selling everything – from the tiniest crackers to one’s dignity. All under the watchful gaze of Haiti’s heroes: Henri Christophe, Alexandre Pétion, Jean-Jacques Dessalines…

Almost 17 months after the January 12, 2010, earthquake that destroyed most of the Haitian capital, leaving perhaps 230,000 people dead and more than one million homeless, the refugees living on the Champ de Mars near the National Palace remain homeless.


The red arrow indicates the National Palace. The Champ de Mars camps are circled in blue. Source: Timo Luege, UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee

“Agents came to take our names and promised some kind of aid, but we’re not sure which kind,” Harold Joseph said.

Joseph lives with six children in a make-shift tent on Henri Christophe Place.

“They have forgotten us. Nobody cares about us. These people and these organizations are just bluffers and opportunists,” he added.

Research by Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) and students from the Laboratoire de Journalisme at the State University of Haiti found that national and international authorities didn’t forget about Joseph and his family. At least, not at the start of the beginning.

But conflicting goals and the apparent lack of leadership and decision-making mean that thousands of families are weathered the past weeks rains and floods in flimsy, unsanitary and outright dangerous tents and shanties.

The best-laid plans

Last year shortly after the earthquake, agencies, organizations ministers and even President René Préval himself met almost every day to plan how to move the Champ de Mars refugees. They wanted to make the relocation a pilot project for other camps – over 1,300 – spread throughout the earthquake affected reason.

During May, 2010, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Red Cross, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Catholic Relief Services and others met in a room of the mostly ruined presidential palace to discuss the plan which was “well ahead,” according to a May 17, 2010, email obtained by HGW.

The message talked about a series of programs planned for the refugees, including:

•    Debris removal

•    Information campaign to encourage people to move back to homes that are not dangerous

•    Demolition of irreparable homes

•    Installation of temporary shelters or “T -Shelters” in the place of razed homes

According to Red Cross official Gerhard Tauscher, author of the email, the project was a “pilot” and “a high media attention is guaranteed.”

Tweets from Gerhard Tauscher from May, 2010.

At the time, Tauscher was coordinator of the “Shelter Cluster" – the body where the humanitarian agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other institutions working on shelter housing problem try coordinate their work.
However, over a year later, the media have not covered the pilot which never started, and the refugees are still living in the hell of tents in the middle of what was once Port-au-Prince’s largest leisure space.

In stark contrast  to other highly visible camps, the refugees of Champ de Mars are not being helped by any relocation program. Why?

Isit because the interventions of the various authorities are not coordinated? Why hasn’t anyone assumed responsibility for this fundamental aspect of post-earthquake recovery?

Life while the heroes are watching

Since the day after the catastrophe, thousands of families have lived shoulder-to-shoulder in humiliatingly close quarters on the 15 squares and formerly greens spaces around the National Palace.

While it is difficult to calculate the exact size of the population, the last IOM census, conducted in October, 2010, counted 6,000 families or about 30,000 people.

Men, women and children live in tattered tents or shacks built of tin and tarpaulin. Homemade or more-or-less professional, their homes don’t protect them from the hot sun, nor do they provide cover from the rain which comes frequently duriing hurricane season.

About 172 temporary toilets, set up by the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (“Action Against Hunger”) serve the entire population. They give off a pestilent odor in the middle of downtown on a thoroughfare frequented by the president, various ministers, and other authorities – although these usually make their forays into the streets in air-conditioned vehicles.

With 172 toilets for 30,000 people, that’s about one per 174 people, which is higher than the average for other camps in the capital (148 people per latrine) and is also a violation of both United Nations guidelines and “Sphere Standards” – 20 people per latrine.

The blue plastic toilets – represented as a gift to the refugees – are not used much. The camp-dwellers refuse to enter them because they are so unhealthy.

“We don’t use those toilets, they’re too dirty. The people who are supposed to clean them do so rarely because they aren’t paid on a regular basis,” according to one passerby, who didn’t give his name.

A woman aged about 20 chimed in: “We do what we need to do in plastic bags or in styrofoam or cardboard ‘take-out’ plates and then throw it in the garbage. Some people do it right in front of their tents. We are really tired of living like this.

The housing crisis before the earthquake

Many organizations intervened in Haiti following the catastrophe of January 12, 2010. But the earthquake only aggravated what was already a housing problem which dates from the distant past, due to the “bidonvilisation” (“slummification”) of Port-au-Prince.

The phenomenon is due to a number of factors, including the structural crisis of Haiti’s economy, especially of the agricultural sector. This caused a massive exodus from the countryside and into the cities.

Port-au-Prince population growth Source: UN-HABITAT "Strategic City-Wide Spatial Planning” report, 2009.

There is a division of the Ministry of Social Affairs dedicated to the public housing. Completely underfunded, it is practically dead and does not play the role it should despite the growing amplitude of the problem.

Because of the state’s inability to deal with the problem, numerous humanitarian agencies have been attracted to Haiti. International organizations like Rotary Club and Habitat for Humanity were in the country long before the earthquake.

Do these agencies have a plan for the relocation of the Champ de Mars refugees?

What happened to the plans made at the National Palace meetings?

See Part 2 of the series

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