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Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell

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

You can't go anywhere in Port-au-Prince without seeing MINUSTAH soldiers. They do have a presence in this camp—those French MPs at my hotel had spent their day breaking up a fight among camp dwellers who cut open the side of a USAID tent here to rob it, just as gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman, easy as pie. People complain that the troops don't do much to actually protect camp residents, or any Haitians; when the UN renewed its peacekeeping mandate in October, people rioted. Though Penn fought for and got a police substation in this camp, we haven't passed any police or soldiers or security on our long lap around it. Daniel suggests to the panicked man where the blueDaniel, who is trying to launch a relief group from his plastic hovel, with his fiancée and 10-year old daughter Melissa.Daniel, who is trying to launch a relief group from his plastic hovel, with his fiancée and 10-year old daughter Melissa. helmets might be. The man goes running down the path in that direction. I wonder if he's going to find them. If he does, I wonder how he's going to tell them what's going on; European, South American, and African MINUSTAH troops don't speak Creole, and do not come with translators.

"You won't find Haitian police in the camps because they're at your hotel," Marc jokes when I get back into his car a couple of hours later. And indeed, when we drive back to the Hotel Oloffson, through a couple miles of traffic that's a little less crazy this late at night, past intermittent houses that have been reduced to rubble, skirting piles of debris in the road, several men in uniform are standing guard at the high gate. Behind it, up a steep driveway, the hotel's pretty white face, a Gothic gingerbread mansion rising from among palm and pine trees. The open-air restaurant we sit down at on the front balcony is low-lit, populated with foreign and elite Haitian drinkers and diners, gorgeous. The conversation at my table? Less comforting.

Marc is explaining that when he finishes law school in two years, he wants to go into human rights advocacy. And he's venting that making a difference, or getting justice for women, is going to be hard to do without a functioning government and the court system and reeducation and things that'd eventually go with it. He, like other people, finds it hilarious when I ask if having new people in power after Haiti's elections is going to lead to a less corrupt, safer country. And he, like everyone else, insists that to avoid crimes against women, they first and foremost have got to be moved out of those tents, where anyone can see that there are women alone, women bathing in public because there's no place else to do it, women whose husbands or fathers died in the quake. But "There is no plan!" Marc exclaims, gesturing off the hotel's front porch in the direction of one of the camps, just across the street. "You need money to get your house fixed after the quake, and most of the people in there don't have the money. And if they get the money, they don't want to spend it on their house because they think the government is going to help them with a housing plan. But there is no government. And there is no plan!"

"A lot of people think people are going to be in those camps for decades," I say. "Do you?"

"Probably! This is eight months after the quake, and it's just gotten worse."

"You know, they still don't have a comprehensive plan for rebuilding New Orleans. Do you remember Hurricane Katrina? That was five years ago," I say, holding up all the fingers on my right hand for effect. "Did you know that there are whole neighborhoods there that are still destroyed, where it looks like the storm was five weeks ago?"(PDF)

Marc's eyes widen. "Really?" Yes, really. "In the United States?" He stares at me for a moment, then starts shaking his head. "That's crazy," he says. He shifts agitatedly in his chair and starts to say something else but gives up; he shifts and opens his mouth and gives up again. He goes back to head shaking, and I go to wondering why I said that, and then we drink in silence.

He got me into an apartment under false pretenses, closed me in, cornered me, and told me, when my BlackBerry beeped, that it must be my father calling to tell me to watch out, because I was about to get kissed.

HOWEVER MUCH of a drag I may have been on Marc last time we hung out, boy am I happy to see him when he comes to pick me up three days later. The day before our reunion, a different driver told me he was taking me one place and then took me someplace else, a place in the middle of no place, where he got me into an apartment under false pretenses, closed me in, cornered me, and told me, when my BlackBerry beeped, that it must be my father calling to tell me to watch out, because I was about to get kissed. This morning, I am looking forward to not having to very carefully talk my way out of a scenario like that, then tolerating passenger-seat pawing as politely as I can bear, so as not to set the driver off while he's busy telling me that he won't emigrate after finishing his college degree because although life is better in the United States, this is the best time to become a businessman in Haiti, what with all the rebuilding that needs to be done.

"What now, partner?" Marc asks me.

"Let's go to Corail."

No Haitians who've been there have anything nice to say about the tent city of Corail Cesselesse. It sounds apocalyptic, even, a too-long string of syllables, alliterative and meaningless. Cesselesse. Abscess. Cesspool. "They moved all those people out in the middle of the desert," Marc said about it the first time it came up. "Like Moses or some shit."

It takes two hours in traffic to get from the capital to this "model" displacement camp sprawled out under clouds at the foot of a green mountain range. And at first glance, it does look not so bad; the tents are actual tents, like little greenhouses, with a few feet of actual space in between them, even a few tiny prefab housing units under construction. That's if you're glancing at it like I am—like a person who doesn't know better. The second we get out of the car, Marc shakes his head. "There're no trees here."

Makeshift tent walls include tarps provided by USAID.Makeshift tent walls include tarps provided by USAID.It's dusty. Shadeless. The sun reflects relentlessly off the white tents and the white gravel laid between them. As we walk into the camp, the big and often sharp stones hurt my feet. And I, unlike the thousand naked babies walking around, have shoes on. This land is part of a plan—pushed by President René Préval (PDF) and facilitated by NGOs—to get people out of unstable, teeming, and still very ruined Port-au-Prince. This land is owned by a Haitian corporation, Nabatec, whose president happened to be appointed by the Haitian government as chief relocation adviser. For allowing its land to be used, Nabatec receives government compensation, and it just so happens to have enticed foreign companies, like a South Korean garment corporation, to build factories here. Activists worry that with Haiti's horrifying labor conditions, they're certain to be sweatshops. Not that Haitians here wouldn't be happy for the jobs. They haven't got much else going for them.

"We know the news reports that everything is great out here," one man yells when Marc tells him I'm press. "They say we have everything we need. But we have nothing but misery." He moved here from a Port-au-Prince camp several months ago because he says the International Organization for Migration—a multilateral group that works with governments on displacement issues—promised them they'd get food aid. The IOM, which did transport the people, says it said no such thing; President Préval banned comprehensive food aid in the country back in March because it's bad for local economies. (See "Aiding or Abetting.") Everyone can agree on one thing: that the location chosen by the chief relocation adviser blows. There are no trees. When it rains, the gravel floods.

Over there are tanks that Oxfam fills with treated water, but the people believe it can make you sick. The women are getting woman infections; everyone assumes the water is responsible for that, too. The NGOs—American Refugee Committee runs the camp; Oxfam and World Vision have a presence—know people think the treated water is unsafe, and wish the Haitian companies selling water to camp residents would stop telling them that; though complaints about the chlorine taste are legitimate, the other issues are signs of serious, unrelated health problems. And as if the water companies hadn't done enough damage, their trucks that lap the camp selling "safer" hydration play a monophonic pan-flute rendition of "My Heart Will Go On."

There's not a lot of money to buy the water with, of course. "They said there would be cash for work here. But the programs last a couple weeks, and then they're over. There's no work out here." The whole time we've been talking, in front of this low, rounded tent, the man has been holding a little bar of soap. He notices it anew and explodes: "I just bought this on credit!"

I've acquired a pantsless toddler, who has attached himself to my left hand with the hand he doesn't have stuffed in his mouth and follows me and Marc when we leave the man. As we continue on, a scuffle breaks out around my right leg; two children are fighting over which one gets to hold onto my right fingers. One child satisfies herself by grasping my watch. They flank me wordlessly as I walk, another contingent of five or six following behind, and stand by while residents holler at me that the rainstorms are still terrifying out here, and I should hear the wind whip down the mountain into the canvas. The prefab houses leak. They'll only last for three years, anyway. And after three years, I ask them? Everybody shrugs.

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