This is my third visit to Haiti since the January 2010 earthquake, which devastated the island, killing more than 300,000 people and making more than a million homeless. As always, I am staying with an amazing family: warm, beautiful people. The family who are hosting me reminded me that I was the first foreign guest to stay in their house when I first came to the country in 2007. So much has changed since then – but some things have remained the same.
When I last came to Haiti, in October/November 2011, the camps which had been set up in the central districts of Petionville and Champ de Mars in the aftermath of the earthquake were still in place. Like all camps, they did not have any sanitation or water facilities. During the rainy and hurricane season (April to October), the living conditions were horrendous, beyond words. According to reports, a few hundred families from Champ de Mars had been provided with homes and had their rent paid for 12 months. But no-one knew how the thousands who were unemployed would be able to pay their rent after the first year’s grace.
In many camps people were being offered $400 and $500 to move, even though there was nowhere to go. So, many ended up moving to another camp, exacerbating the overcrowding there instead. A small, single room in Port-au-Prince costs about $500 a year to rent, but there is still food and clothing to buy, transport to pay for and, if you have children, school fees – unless you are able to enrol your children at one of the few free schools in the city. So the few hundred dollars offered wouldn’t have lasted long. But it’s hard to refuse even so.
In Petionville, the camp at Place Boyer was cleared of residents last year; each family was given $500. The campsite is now cordoned off with a three-metre high red zinc fence. On the corner of Place Boyer, there used to be a small community tent – an all-in-one barber shop, pub and restaurant where you could buy goat-head soup and drink beer. There were also huge rats that ran around the back of the trees by the fence. There were sex workers working for a pittance and being abused. Now there is just the red fence.
As in many other urban areas across the Global South, people are being removed under the guise of ‘urban renewal’. This is just a fancy word for the removal of poor people, black people and people of colour from city centres. Port-au-Prince is no different. Whole market areas have been cleared; the camps have been cleared. It’s as if people are being swept up by giant dumpsters and deposited in less-visible areas of the city.
On the third anniversary of the earthquake I attended a protest with my host in Acra camp near Delmas 33. The protesters were already lining up with banners spread across the narrow street – on one side tents and tarps; on the other a high wall. While we were waiting for the trucks to start up Ginette, one of the women leaders, explained:
‘We are tired after three years – we need houses. A few days ago the French Red Cross came to the camp to give us new tarps. They brought 10 poles and a tarp and gave them out – there weren’t even enough for everyone. Then they left. They take pictures of the camp with the tarps and poles and put them on the internet. We’re on their publicity but we don’t get anything.’
Some of the most critical NGO stories I have heard over the past three years relate to the US, French and British Red Cross. The people at Acra want new homes; they have a design, they have plans. There is plenty of land in and outside Port-au-Prince. They are not asking for handouts. They will pay for their homes through a credit scheme, but they need the government to provide the land and build the houses first.