Haiti's earthquake camps turning into shanty towns

Makeshift tents
Aerial view of makeshift tents in Port au Prince Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010.
Francois Mori/Associated Press

First there was an empty field. Then came rows of makeshift tents. Now those camps are turning into shanty towns - with bakeries, lottery stands and homes - that show no sign of moving soon.

In the five weeks since the quake struck, aid workers, officials and Haiti's government have debated where and how the 1.2 million people left homeless by the disaster should live. Should they be given ready-made tents or plastic tarps? What land should be made available to house them?

A long-delayed announcement on where government camps might go could be made Thursday.

But the people are not waiting. On a former landing strip-turned-boulevard called Route de Piste a cluster of ramshackle villages is rising.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Row upon row of corrugated tin and wood shacks stand against the wind as dusty men walk between them carrying saws and hammers. Children look for the snow cone man at the crossroads, near where a lottery dealer named Max has set up his booth. In a shack marked "Boulangerie Pep La" - the people's bakery - the smell of dough wafts from the oven, and two flat rolls cost 5 gourdes, about 12 cents.

These shanty towns are redrawing the map of the capital, filling open fields with new versions of the joyful life and harsh crime and abuse that always marked existence in the slums - with an extra helping of disease, hunger and misery brought on by the Jan. 12 disaster, which killed more than 200,000 people.

This means people are planning to stay in some very dangerous places: at the bottom of hillsides they know will collapse in a heavy rain or near riverbeds that are bound to flood. They are crowded into polluted areas where sanitation is limited and disease is already starting to spread.

"The government has said for weeks that they have identified sites, but time is getting short and there has been little progress," said Ian Bray, an Oxfam spokesman.

That's one problem. Another is that people simply do not want to go far from where they always lived and worked. With property hard to come by, aftershocks continuing and 38 percent of Port-au-Prince's buildings destroyed by the magnitude-7 quake, according to U.N. satellite imagery, their options are limited.

"People are displaced, they've lost their homes but they haven't lost their jobs," said Alex Wynter of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "The key issue is land."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, making the first visit ever by a French head of state to his nation's former colony, pledged 16,000 tarps and 1,000 tents to house 200,000 people while touring the ruins of Port-au-Prince's collapsed national palace.

Haiti's own leader, President Rene Preval, has been less decisive.

"We have to find a solution to get people under shelter - a combination of tents, tarps, corrugated tin roofs ... whatever combination it is," Preval told The Associated Press during a half-hour interview this week. He did not elaborate.

For the people now living under a big flagpole, the decision has already been made.

"If they chase after us, we'll leave. Until then we're here," said Lens Beny, a 20-year-old water peddler who built an 8-by-9-foot wood and tin shack for himself and five relatives. His front door is a lace curtain; the roof is a garbage bag that leaves a solid third of the shanty exposed to the sky.

It is, in a manner of speaking, a temporary shelter - the sort officials are counting on people to build as 250,000 tarps are handed out ahead of the spring rainy season and more permanent solutions are reached.

It's also an unpleasant place to live. One recent rain shower destroyed the flimsy particle boards he bought for $3.70 each, Beny said, as he ripped off a clump of wall.

The new neighborhood is very densely packed; some 27,000 people live there, according to Haitian Red Cross workers. U.N., foreign and local officials are directing aid to the site, while also designating it a "priority for decongestion" - meaning some people must move out.

The overcrowding is the chief reason officials say they don't want to give people the waterproof tents they are demanding - there just isn't enough space for them.

So people like Beny have taken things into their own hands. As he replaced his family's makeshift tent with an even bigger makeshift house, he pushed out the neighbors whose space he needed.

Residents say some men are hoarding food coupons the U.N. World Food Program devised to ensure the flow of food aid, selling them for $4 or more. There are allegations of beatings and robberies. One group stole a Red Cross shelter and tried to camouflage it with a sign advertising it as "National School Jan. 12, founded Feb. 7, 2010." (The Red Cross got it back.)

There is also talk of rape. One group of residents said men were using food coupons to pay for sex with women living in the camp, and assaulting them if they don't agree.

"There is no security. There are never police, U.S. soldiers or U.N.," said Dr. Kobel Dubique, a doctor with Boston-based Partners in Health, which is running a clinic in the camp.

Such crimes were common in the nearby stretch of oceanside slums that includes the sprawling Cite Soleil, especially a few years ago before U.N. peacekeepers moved in and the gangs were driven out.

But until five weeks ago, this was a fenced-in park. The area, dominated by a former airstrip of the disbanded Haitian military, was to have been turned into a residential zone under former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He went into exile amid a rebellion in 2004, and except for a single concrete apartment building and the flagpole, the area remained empty until the quake.

During his visit, Sarkozy also pledged that France will spend a total of 326 million euros ($443 million) on Haitian aid the next two years. That amount includes the cancellation of Haiti's 56 million euro debt to France and 40 million euros in aid planned before the quake.

The question now is not just what comes next, but how fast. The immensity of tackling what Inter-American Development Bank economists say is the worst disaster of 2,000 they examined in a study released Tuesday - a list that includes the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 1972 Nicaragua earthquake - cannot be understated.

The people of Port-au-Prince, millions of whom survive on less than $2 a day, cannot wait for problems to be sorted out by a government that has never succeeded in addressing them before.

Morning talk shows like Radio Caraibe's "Caribbean Morning" took calls Wednesday from listeners on how to rebuild. Warned to wait for official sanction to rebuild, one caller asked why the quake-damaged police station in his neighborhood was being restored if he couldn't work on his home. Preval often appears visibly worried about the problem. After a recent meeting with a U.S. legislative delegation led by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he pulled an aide aside and talked in grave tones about the "million people on the streets."

But he isn't saying what they are going to do.

U.S. lawmakers brought up the issue with Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive during the meeting last week, but did not get a solution, said Sen. George LeMieux of Florida.

"We urged the president to take measures and make decisions quickly," the Republican senator told the AP in a telephone interview. "I am very concerned that with the Haitian people in these camps ... that we are going to have a second tragedy soon."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)