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Three People Die in Haiti Camp Fire a Day Before the Earthquake Anniversary

Haiti: Too Sweet, Too Bitter

by MARK SCHULLER

Tomorrow marks four years since the earthquake that destroyed Haiti.

Aside from the construction of stands around Champs-de-Mars, noticeably absent the National Palace, from which pastors proclaim the gospel over loudspeakers, there is little sign of tomorrow’s significance. Unlike the first anniversary – indeed, first six months, of the earthquake, there is little organized fanfare.

On the surface, things are calm. Port-au-Prince appears to be in security. Kidnapping stats are way down from the end of the year. The protests that engulfed the streets almost daily in November and early December, including thousands recently for an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage to 500 gourdes a day (about $11.35, or $1.42 per hour), have dissipated for the holiday season.

But like many people who have commented on the taste of Prestige, Haiti’s national beer that recently won its second world beer cup title, since it was purchased by Heineken, it is too sweet.

Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe presented a list of accomplishments four years on, which include the construction of 5,000 houses.

Yet this sweetness comes at a price. Yes, the price of beer, along with daily necessities, has gone up.

But there is also a price for the apparent sweetness of the city. Persistent rumors credit deals made with elements who would otherwise create disorder for the climate of security.

For some, the realities four years on are only too bitter.

On the “piste” – former airstrip, now a main thoroughfare dividing one of Haiti’s only remaining relocation camps from scattered successful social housing projects – a half a block from Route de l’Aéroport, is a camp, “Pèp Pwogresis” (progressive people, also known as Delogè) where about 108 families lived. Like many still remaining the camp is carefully hidden, in this case by a ten-foot brick wall. The owner of the space, about the size of a squat football field (80 yards by about 40 yards), is the business that abuts it, Imprimerie des Antilles.

Between 9:30 and 10:00 this morning, a fire started in the camp, the corner that sits next to the printer. Within 20-25 minutes, the Police and the Fire fighters arrived. By about 11, the fire overtook the entire camp, every single house. The fire was hot enough to completely burn people’s beds; only the springs remained. Car batteries, used to power inverters, also burned through. Soft drink bottles melted. Chards of ceramic plates charred next to warped silverware. A pile of blackened tubers and plantains sat feet from a chicken carcass. The owner of the house (declined giving her name) had just come back from Port-de-Paix that morning with the foodstuffs.

Nothing was salvageable. Sheets of tin ripped and covered in soot were scattered on top of the few concrete blocks that delimited individual families’ house.

Camp committee president Ruth Calixte confirmed that three people died, including two children. Three year old Sabine Leon’s bones stuck out of the charred remains of her house.Louinor Nizaire, an adult, also died on the way to the hospital. He was asthmatic. Around thirty people were transferred to the hospital. Calixte explained that two hospitals, BernardMevs (private hospital in Cité Soleil) and OFATMA (a public institution), refused entry of the injured.

By the time I spoke with Calixte at 6:00 p.m., a child and four parents were still unaccounted for.

Several people in Red Cross uniforms were walking around the camp, accompanied by people identified with the Ministry of Public Health and Civil Protection. By about 2 p.m., the fire was completely put out, the fire fighters boarding their truck. Two Canadian MINUSTAH police officers entered the camp at this point.

While it is possible that they were waiting for the smoke to clear, there were no officials that could offer assistance to the 108 families who saw all their belongings burn beyond salvaging between 1 and 2:20, when I left the camp. Calixte confirmed that no one came by. She was still looking for somewhere to sleep for the night.

The police and fire officers with whom I spoke couldn’t identify the source of the fire, however a rumor circulated that the official cause of the fire according to the mayor’s office was an electrical wire burning. Given the heat and the rapidity of the fire – and the fact that it spread throughout the entire camp – there is a strong possibility of arson.

According to Calixte IOM did a census in the camp in late November, simply to update people’s IDP cards. No word was given to residents about relocation assistance; a plan that has successfully closed many of Haiti’s camps centers paying landlords up to $500 to rent to IDPs. Calixte reports constant pressure to leave the camp, while no specific threats. She reports not being in direct contact for about a year.

The steadily ticking down of internally displaced persons (IDPs), as officially counted by the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix is often hailed as the singular measure of progress for the Haiti relief effort. The latest report counts 147,000 IDPs, a tenth of the population as of July 2010.

The official count suddenly dropped to 172,000 in a report published on October 22. Notably, the large settlement area known as “Kanaran” (Canaan) was taken out because the Haitian government no longer considered it a camp. Population estimates for Kanaran vary between 70,000 and 140,000.

This official slight-of-hand is particularly insidious considering that Kanaran – which is a complex place with its own contradictions and realities – is a place where many IDPs go following the closure of their camp. In research conducted in the summer of 2012, 41% of Kanaran residents used to live in a camp. Of former camp residents, 63% reported leaving because of forced eviction, and 27% because of bad conditions.

This was before the bulk of the managed relocation program, modeled after the “16/6” plan. The Faculty of Ethnology’s Development Sciences Department Chair, sociologist IlionorLouis, reports that many IDPs found themselves at Kanaran even with the rental assistance program, because they couldn’t afford to make payments, or the landlord kicked them out. Shantytowns are creeping up the steep mountainsides of Mòn Lopital on the south edge of Port-au-Prince.

The construction of 5,000 homes (the Times reported a grand total of 7,515) pales in comparison to the 105,000 houses completely destroyed and 188,383 houses collapsed or badly damaged.

Since they no longer officially exist, residents who are kicked out of Kanaran have no legal recourse, like the approximately 250 families living in Vilaj Mozayik, a camp that relocated together to Kanaran. On December 9, they were again forced from their homes, by armed bandits and police.

Tomorrow a large march is scheduled to advocate for housing rights. Word is that other larger, more politically motivated, protests will resume in the week.

No protest can bring Sabine Leon back to life, nor give back the 108 families of the “progressive people” camp their baby pictures, their tarps, their clothes, their homes, and their sense of security.

If this bitter reality is hard to swallow it is nonetheless an important reminder of the precariousness of the situation.

Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’Étatd’Haïti. Supported by the National Science Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and others, Schuller’s research on globalization, NGOs, gender, and disasters in Haiti has been published in two dozen book chapters and peer-reviewed articles as well as public media. He is the author of Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (2012) and co-editor of three volumes, including Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake (2012). He is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009). Schuller is co-editor of Berghahn Books’ Catastrophes in Context: a Series in Engaged Social Science on Disasters, board chair of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, and active in several solidarity efforts.