As we left the grounds of the airport of Port-au-Prince, I thought that things had really changed in the city. The tents that choked every available space have disappeared. But, have they really? As we inched along in the ever-congested traffic, hints of blue and dirty white peeked from every corner. “Where have these displaced persons gone?”, I asked. “Wait until you travel to Verrettes tomorrow”, was the answer. We had noticed last year how many persons, tired of the overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the camps for the displaced, had taken matters into their own hands and set up shelters on the barren land on the outskirts of the capital. Before, there were tents scattered on the hillside, today, the density of shelters of every description is startling. Not only is the land being inhospitable; there is no water, electricity or sanitation. Questions leapt immediately to my mind: ”What will happen when the owners claim back their “invaded lands”, as they are called?” “What will the consequences be with regards to health when the rains carry waste and pollute the underground water supply of the capital?
Port-au-Prince has a wound that does not heal. At first glance, the city seems in better shape. There are less piles of rubble, more empty lots where damaged houses have been demolished, construction more widespread and going on at a faster pace. Even the camps for the displaced look and feel less congested. Life goes on, busy and noisy. Shops have a more permanent air than last year. But …. If there is less rubble, there is more trash. Trash that flows like a river when it rains, dragging in its path hidden germs of cholera and other diseases.
Saturday night it rained in Port-au-Prince, and we were grateful for the cool gift that it brought. The shrubs in the garden were watered for free, and the cistern that stores water for the house filled to the brim. I, snug in our cement house, could not avoid very mixed feelings. I enjoyed the cool and the gift of water but at the same time I felt impotence and anger in face of the injustice that thousands of displaced persons faced - yet another night in the cold, wet, and with little hope for a roof.
On top of all this, I had read earlier in the day an article in “Le Nouvelliste”, a Haitian newspaper in French*. The report, entitled “Those shelters that shelter no one”, featured the cold facts of the chaos that reigns in the housing situation. Taking the example of two NGOs (by name) the article exposed the practice of building and allocating houses without collating information. 44,000 people have received two houses each- and some talk about this without regret or remorse because they live in one house and rent the other while thousands only have tents which are rags rather than shelters. It is said that 110,000 houses have been built at a cost of $ 500 million US dollars. There are still some 450,000 displaced families. But it is estimated that there were approximately 250,000 people renting houses at the time of the earthquake. Therefore, how many homes are really needed, and for whom? Is it that some people are hoping to get a house without ever having been homeowners? Something does not jibe … one need not be overly suspicious to see this.
One sight in Port-au-Prince moved me deeply. The monument to the « neg mawon » has stood in the gardens near the Presidential Palace since the time of Duvalier. Until recently the statue could not be seen because it was completely surrounded by tents. Today only one remains, as a silent witness. The Unknown Cimarron once more blows the conch, one of the thousands of nameless slaves who fled to the mountains and banded together in a solidarity that fueled the revolution against the colony. As a woman exclaimed when she saw the statue still standing after the earthquake, “Neg mawon pap jann kraze”. The Cimarron, the free man, cannot be destroyed. It was not only the statue this woman was talking about, but the Haitian people.
Leaving behind the crowed hillsides outside of Port-au-Prince one may think it is indeed a different country. The road travels between green fields of rice and bananas. Sometimes it borders a river. Women riding donkeys are a common sight, as well as men tilling the fields. The contrast of small houses, modest but “in harmony” with the landscape, does not fail to startle me after the unhealthy congestion we have just left behind. Verrettes is a small but very busy town, with all the basic services: schools, hospital, churches, shops and funeral parlors. But the countryside knocks at the back door. I reflected on this as a young man smiled and asked me to take his picture while I enjoyed a bucolic scene: a donkey and its young against a backdrop of golden hills. I wonder if he is content with his lot or if he is willing to trade a life close to nature and its riches for a taste of the fast pace of life in the bustling and congested capital.
The eyes of the children of Verrettes shine bright with possibilities, love and trust. I enjoyed meeting some of them once more in our visit to the project in which RSCJ have been involved since the beginning of our presence in Haiti: Timoun Tet Ansamn (Children Together). We attended one of their weekly sessions on values, and at the same time, watched them enjoy a safe place for play and friendship, and eat a nutritious lunch. In the words of a Haitian proverb, Pitit se riches malere. The future of the children is both the riches and the hope of the poor.
Lolín Menéndez, rscj
Province of Puerto Rico-Haiti
*“Ces abris qui n’abritent personne” – Le Nouvelliste, 15 mars 2012, which was written with the support of the Fund for Journalism of Investigation in Haiti.