Haiti earthquake camps clearing out; problems now become hidden

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Facing the crumpled remnants of the national palace, an expansive plaza is punctuated by trees, benches and statues of Haitian heroes. Students read in the shade, women gossip, children play soccer.

This serene picture in Port-au-Prince’s central square might seem ordinary, but it is not. After a massive earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital on Jan. 12, 2010, about 5,000 displaced people took shelter on the square, turning it into a crowded and dangerous new neighborhood.

Now, 2 1/2 years later, the plaza known as Champs de Mars has been cleared, save for a few straggling tents.

Photos: Earthquake hits Haiti (Jan. 2010)

The number of displaced Haitians has dropped from 1.5 million to just under 400,000, according to the International Organization of Migration, changing the look of a capital whose landscape was defined for many months by piles of rubble and fraying tent encampments.

But the progress is largely cosmetic. Although a few camps have benefited from aid programs, a grave underlying housing shortage means that the majority of those who left the camps have disappeared into the overcrowded homes of relatives or constructed precarious shacks in hillside slums.

The recent clearing of Champs de Mars is one sign of how urgently Haiti’s government and its image-conscious elite want to return public squares to normality.

A $78-million project dubbed “16/6” aims to repair 16 damaged neighborhoods and “decongest” six camps. A separate Canadian program paid to find homes for the residents of Champs de Mars.

Under 16/6, camp dwellers and residents in damaged neighborhoods can choose between having their homes fixed and taking a one-year rental subsidy of $500. About 10,000 families have chosen the subsidy. Those who found a cheaper home could pocket leftover funds.

Beneficiaries sounded excited to leave the camps, but worried about what happens when the subsidy runs out. Many complained that a rental subsidy does little to improve their lives as long as they remain unemployed and impoverished.

“The money isn’t enough,” said Rossi Jacques Casimir, 25, who moved out of Champs de Mars with his family of four. “What will we do next year?”

Officials say the rent subsidy is emergency aid for the displaced, not a broad development solution.

In one of the neighborhoods being refurbished, called Morne Hercule, brightly painted pink and yellow houses glisten on a hillside.

Enite Fleuriot, 47, lives in her newly repaired home with six children. She had stayed away from the house, where three of her children were crushed in the earthquake, until the repairs were complete.

“It used to be such a sad neighborhood,” Fleuriot said. “Now it’s coming back.”

Down the hill from Fleuriot’s house, though, a neighbor’s home totters on the edge of a ravine. That house won’t be repaired because it is too vulnerable to landslides and flooding.

The 16/6 program has limited reach, with funds to help about 5% of camp dwellers. Many other people await relief in camps on vacant private lots. But as property owners lose patience with the squatters, some camp residents face eviction, at times by force.

Tens of thousands of people have given up on crowded Port-au-Prince and headed north to chaparral-covered hillsides overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The result: huge, impromptu settlements lacking water or electricity that many fear could become the country’s newest slum.

The communities are a reminder of a wider battle over land in Haiti that usually breaks along class lines.

Rose Saintil, 40, moved north with all her fellow camp residents after being evicted.

“This is better,” Saintil said, peering from the opening of a newly erected communal tent, feeling the sea breeze in her face.

But her move became somebody else’s problem.

“This isn’t good decoration,” said Ronald “Roro” Nelson, gesturing to the tarp shelters blanketing the hillside. Nelson said he was “with the government” but refused to give his title.

On this day, he was with businessman Henry Thevenin, who said the land has been in his family for almost 200 years, and that he plans to build a hotel with a marina and golf course.

“In what kind of country do you go next to the water and find houses like that?” Thevenin asked, taking in the view of picturesque sea and the carpet of shacks and small houses strewn across the hillside.

The land was officially declared for “public use” by then-President Rene Preval after the earthquake. Thevenin brushed off the declaration. “I heard something about that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the displaced people in the encampments on private land remain out of public view, easily forgotten.

“Once you’ve removed the public, visible camps, you risk taking your eye off the ball and don’t think about the grim situations of people living in the hidden camps,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration.

Esperance Carlange lives with six relatives in a tent camp tucked behind a university dormitory. On a recent day, her belongings were spread on the ground; she was moving from a tattered, rain-flooded tent into a temporary shelter provided by the migration organization. But she still felt rootless.

“This isn’t what all the people who came to help told us,” she said. “That 2 1/2 years later, we’d still be under tents.”

Gaestel is a special correspondent.