Page 1 of 5

Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell

Dispatches from the tent cities, where rape gangs and disaster profiteers roam.

Editor's note: Three years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed 217,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless, an estimated 360,000 people still live in tent camps like the ones described in this story. Read the rest of our Haiti package to learn about what aid actually works and why so much aid that's been promised has gone AWOL.

When Alina happened upon a group of men—too many to count—raping a girl in the squalid Port-au-Prince camp where she and other quake victims lived, she couldn't just stand there. Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct. And the 58-year-old was successful, in a way, in that when she tried to intervene, the men decided to rape her instead, hitting her ribs with a gun, threatening to shoot her, firing shots in the air to keep other people from getting ideas of making trouble as they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on. When it was over, Alina lay on the ground hemorrhaging and aching, alone. The men were gone, but no one dared to help her for fear of being killed.

"We had this rape problem before the earthquake," Yolande Bazelais tells me. She is the president of FAVILEK (the Creole acronym stands for Women Victims Get Up Stand Up), an organization founded by women who were raped (PDF) during the 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. We're sitting under a blue tarp in the driveway of another NGO's office, because FAVILEK doesn't have one, with four of the other founders and my translator, Marc. He works with FAVILEK sometimes, running rape-related errands, taking victims like Alina to the hospital or the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), an international lawyers' group, for legal support. "Now," Bazelais says, "we have double problems."

Advertise on

It's a terrifying statement, considering that a survey taken before the earthquake estimated that there were more than 50 rapes a day just in Port-au-Prince, based on just the reported rapes—and more than half of the victims were minors. That's how it's been for as long as anyone can remember, with the perpetrators ranging from neighbors to street thugs to, as the FAVILEK founders can attest, police and paramilitaries who use rape as a tool of intimidation and terror.

But nearly a year after the 7.0 earthquake that shook some 280,000 buildings to the ground and killed or maimed nearly twice that many people, FAVILEK's insufficient resources are stretched thinner than ever. The organization says that displacement camps are hornet's nests of sexual violence.

"Every day it is like this: fighting, a lot of violence, murder, a lot of rape," they say, shaking their heads. "A lot of rape."

The French military policemen hanging around my hotel say the same thing. They are soldiers of MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, and their faces darken when they talk about the camps. "Every day it is like this: fighting, a lot of violence, murder, a lot of rape," they say, shaking their heads. "A lot of rape." A 43-page report by the IJDH says so, too, with a pile of testimonials like Alina's. And there's Marc, whose phone is always ringing, who's "like an ambulance" because "people are always calling me to say someone got raped"—like the woman calling about her teenage daughter today. Marc, who waves at somebody on the street as we drive around Port-au-Prince and yells, "I used to work with that guy!" then explains that the guy quit immediately because he really didn't want to hear about five-year-olds being raped. FAVILEK gets three or four calls a week about new cases, and that's just from the dozen camps the organization attempts to cover. There are 1,300 camps in all.

The quake's immediate aftermath.The quake's immediate aftermath.It's the first thing you see when you step out of Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport: just across the street, a sea of tarps held together with sticks and strings, white plastic and blue plastic and gray plastic side by side by side under the glaring sun. Maybe there are some clothes drying in the very narrow paths between shelters. Probably there are people bathing in the open. The bigger settlements sport walls of portable toilets. Within Port-au-Prince, every spare patch of land from the airport to anywhere is covered in tent settlements. More than a million people live like that, no lights, no security. The tent cities are hot, hungry, and packed, and tension is the only thing in town being built.

The main market in one of the 1,300 tent cities that pock Port-au-Prince, makeshift encampments home to 1.2 million people and terrorized by gangs of rapists. The main market in one of the 1,300 tent cities that pock Port-au-Prince.The FAVILEK founders say they need two agents in each of the 1,300 camps instead of a dozen total. And even if they had the agents, and could pay them, which they can't, they'd still need the resources to help the victims. The other day, a woman was raped and choked nearly to death. She called to say she was in hiding, but FAVILEK couldn't help her—it doesn't have any funds to pay for moving her someplace safe. Nor could it cover the cost of, say, anxiety medication for Alina, who says, "I have heart palpitations and sometimes I begin to shake uncontrollably." We sit outside in metal folding chairs, the FAVILEK founders swatting mosquitoes off my bare ankles as they tell me how it's a struggle even to take care of their own: Last night yet another agent's tent was ripped down by pro-rape thugs.

Not that these women, now in their forties and fifties, survivors all, are easily intimidated. One of them had her legs smashed in addition to being raped. One was shot. She gets frustrated at some point while I'm asking questions and says, "We meet with white people, and white people, and white people." She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says. She is tired. She is exhausted. At least they could have given us an office. And if you, white girl, think you're actually going to make yourself useful, I'll give you my goddamn email address...

A female doctor turns to me and demands: Do I understand this rape victim's situation? That this isn't one of those tragedies, like when an innocent girl is raped?

They have gotten some whistles donated, at least, one of the other women says; they're effective sometimes. I don't bother asking if the cops are trying to help prevent rape, because all of 18 rape cases were brought before a judge in Port-au-Prince in 2009. Earlier today, Marc and I went to pick up an activist from camp because an "escapee"—a prisoner who was released from his cell during the quake—threatened to shoot her and some of her coworkers for standing up for rape victims, and when she went to file a complaint with the police, the officer said, "He should've killed you all." Earlier today, Marc and I drove past a man in a blue button-down shirt who was identified by a victim as a rapist, and Marc tore around the block and jumped out to go collect the license-plate number of the shiny SUV the man was getting into, but then Marc said he didn't know what he was going to do with it, because a guy who drives a car like that is probably friends with cops.

Earlier today, a female doctor turned to me during a consult with a rape victim and demanded: Do I understand the situation? Do I understand that this is what happens to girls like this one, who have children but are not married? That this isn't one of those tragedies, like when an innocent girl is raped?

But what about the government or the UN? I ask the FAVILEK founders. What about the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission led by the country's prime minister and Bill Clinton? Do they have any kind of plan for protecting the women in the camps?

Marc's translating services are rendered moot when five heads shake instant hard "no"s.

Page 1 of 5