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"People Need a Normal, Stable Life" (The Urgency of Housing in Haiti, Part V)

The Haitian government response to the mass displacement has been occasionally to move refugees to another set of tents, like the acres of sweltering shelters in the desert pictured here. Photo: Beverly Bell.

Carine Exantus is a 22-year-old university student majoring in social communications. She lost her home, aunt, and cousin in the earthquake of January 12. In “You Need to Hear from the People: Communicating from Haiti’s Refugee Camps” (August 5, 2010),” Carine explains why she has been blogging from the internally displaced people’s camp where she now lives. Here she tells more about daily life in the camps, and why creating permanent housing for the displaced populations is essential.

I used to participate in a religious group in a church right near the National Cathedral. The group was having choir practice inside the church at the time of the earthquake. Luckily I hadn’t gone, because about fifteen young people died. We tried to regroup, and we had a priest with us who gave us psycho-social help because at that moment the group was very hard hit. And then I went back to my university to find out what had happened to other young students, asking “Is so-and-so alive? Is so-and-so dead?” We found that a lot of our friends were still alive, though there were also those who died or disappeared.

Even though we lost everything we had, we had relatives and friends who helped us however they could. Those relationships with family and friends helped us; we supported each other. And little by little we got the urgent things we needed.

We weren’t used to sleeping outside under the stars, getting soaked by the rain so that when you get up you and your clothes are drenched. That makes us feel undignified. But we realize that we who survived are privileged, so we can’t just fall into sadness and depression.

You see all these people who lost their houses who don’t have the means to build other houses. In the camp, someone who has a tent is someone who’s found someone to give them a gift; the majority of people are living in tonèl, a little shelter made of a tarp over [four sticks of] wood. They’ve taken a little wood and some nails and they’ve built a little place to live. I can’t say that this is bad because people need a place to stay and no one is doing it for them, so they’re making do the only way they can. But the authorities should have foreseen this.

Especially now that we’re in hurricane season until November… For people who don’t have a good tonèl or tent, when the rains come, they spend the entire night standing up on their two feet. After seven months, people are tired.

Everyone’s primary needs are sanitation, health, bodily needs. Water is hard to get; you have to stand in a line in the sun to get water. They put in port-o-potties, but they don’t come and clean the toilets on time, so people don’t want to use them. You have to watch and see when they’ve just finished cleaning them to use them. In my camp, there are 12 toilets in the front, 12 toilets in the back – 24 total for 4,200 people. Me, when I wake up early, I go to a friend’s house and she lets me use the shower. But in the camp, it’s people themselves who have installed showers with their scarce means, and you can’t use them: you wash just to get dirty again. People hardly use these facilities anymore. Everyone at their tent has a little plastic basin where they throw water over themselves, or they just shower in public from the basin. In my journal I wrote about this: young women suffer sexual aggression because they have to bathe in public.

For food, everybody is getting by the best they can. As far as health goes, two months later, mobile clinics started coming. But now they’re gone. If you have a problem, you have to wake up at 4:00 in the morning to go get in one of the lines in the clinic they’ve set up in the CIMO camp. Then you wait til they open at 8:00. If you’re not there by the time they open, they won’t take you. If you have an emergency problem you have to go to the general hospital, but it’s hard to get care.

The question of security? Ha! They never did anything about that and they still haven’t. Because – I was just talking about the sexual aggression that exists in the camps – there’s all kind of rape happening in the camp. There’s rape, but people don’t want to talk about it publicly because here in Haiti, someone who has been raped is traumatized, and they don’t want people to know.

There’s a lot of theft, you have to watch what you have very carefully. I remember someone gave us a gift of a little chair to sit on, just a little chair. My mother was sitting in it, and she got up to drink some water in the tent, and when she came back, the chair was gone.

Look how Champs de Mars [the giant camp in the central park] is. You can just go in and out because these were public spaces, there are no walls or gates or anything. Anyone can just frequent the camp, whether they live there or not.

Before, we used to have a very big problem. There were escapees from the national prison who put their tents [in Champs de Mars]. When the people in the camp noticed all the trouble these people were causing, they went to the police. The police paid strict attention to the camp for about fifteen days. Every night they would come and arrest some people, which diminished our problem a little.

But the biggest problem we have now from a security perspective is that people come while you’re asleep, slit the tents open, take what they need, and disappear. That hasn’t happened to us, but we’ve talked to people around us who it’s happened to.

People aren’t adapted to live in environments like this. You have to work hard not to get sick. You see children who were normal before January 12, and now you see their color has changed, they’re skinnier, they have bumps all over their skin.

The most urgent need is to move people to a more comfortable place where they won’t be under tonèl or tents anymore. The most important thing is to move them to a different place - not under a tonèl or a tent again [the current government plan involves relocation to new tents], but a better, permanent structure. Put them in little houses so each family can have a place, more or less comfortable, to sleep, to leave their things, because to live you need stability, you can’t be walking around all day with all your belongings under your arms. You have to be able to say, “That is my place, that’s where my possessions are, that’s where I sleep, that’s where my home is.”

For people to evolve, they need to live better. If people can’t sleep well, how can you expect them to think or make any effort or work? People need a normal, stable life. Can they spend the rest of their lives under a tent?

It shouldn’t be this way. When you’ve been hit like this, when you’ve lost everything, there have to be authorities who can help. But people have been left to deal with it all on their own.

I thought that this was a chance for us to think about and change all of the problems we had. It touched us in all ways, and gave us a way to think about doing things differently. But we haven’t seen anyone taking action to really help us, to put together a reconstruction plan or help us with any of our other problems.

Talking about the future is complicated. I wonder if our future isn’t in jeopardy. Because sure, you see a big international presence in Haiti, but the Haitian authorities have disappeared. Sometimes they inform you of projects they’re doing, but you never have concrete proof that they’re doing anything.

If the government were to take responsibility, I won’t say that Haiti would develop, but it would have a radical change. Every day we wake up and think “Haiti has so many problems, Haiti has so many problems.” You don’t hear about any solution, you just see the problems growing.

For [Haitians] with willingness to help… when they don’t see their personal interests supported, they let go of the common interests because they’re so preoccupied with taking care of their own lives. The people who have the means to do so leave, and go somewhere else where they can live better.

We have a lot of work to do. We need to have dialogue so we can tell the international organizations what we need, what problems we have. I’d hope that the Haitian authorities and the international community can collaborate, can have good relations to develop really useful solutions for those who have problems.

UPDATE: In an interview in last week’s article, Carine Exantus told about why she feels it’s important to blog from the refugee camp where she lives. She is not alone. A recently established mobile Telecenter currently moves between six camps, offering computers and blogging potential to as many as 60 youth. The Groupe Medialternatif, which organized the initiative, hopes to make it possible for every camp to have its own blog. You can read more about the project (in French) here: http://www.alterpresse.org/spip.php?article9758

Thanks to Laura Wagner for translating this interview.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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