(Published originally on The Missoulian, June 6, 2010. Reprinted on CommonDreams.org)
Port-au-Prince, Haiti – It is 2 p.m. in what used to be the neighborhood of Croix des Prez in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After the “catastrophe” of Jan. 12, it became Camp Croix des Prez, only one of the many camps in which more than 600,000 Haitians 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 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.
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 are 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. 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, “Sixty-eight 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 every day.”
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.
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 Center 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.
At 3 p.m., the temperature at Croix des Prez is close to 100 degrees, but, as I’ve found, inside people’s “houses” the temperatures are at least 10 degrees 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 1/8 of a square mile. There isn’t a lot of room at Croix des Prez, but there are so many people.
At 4 p.m., David Schmidt and I enter Monsieur Raimond’s house, a 10-foot by 10-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.
David, the other member of the delegation, speaks in Kreyol to Monsieur Raimond to ask him about life in the camp. From 4 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. 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 said 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 like 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.
At 5:30 p.m., we 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.
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 Non-Governmental Organizations, such as the Red Cross, CARE and the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, 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?“
By the time we are done interviewing people on our first day it is almost 8 p.m. 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.
At 6 a.m. the next day I wake early. 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 a.m. 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 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.
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. Everyone is happy but tired. It has been a lot of work and it is now 3 p.m., officially past the 24-hour mark. We have been in the camp for over a day.
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 most cases only a portion of the money raised has been spent. In the case of each organization, the rest of the money is being held in abeyance for “long term” development in Haiti’s “future.”
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. 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, to keep themselves and whatever possessions they can hold from getting completely drenched.
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.