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.”
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
“I’M BLACK, and Haitian, and I wouldn’t go where you’re going right now, in the dark,” Marc says when we’re on our way to the Petionville golf course on the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince. Well, it used to be a golf course. Now it’s packed with 55,000 homeless people and is known as “Sean Penn’s camp,” because the actor’s aid group, J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization), runs it. We’ve had this plan for Marc to drop me off here to meet someone all day. So his sudden concern about my getting out of the car is a little unsettling.
“I’m sayin’, there’s a reason all the aid organizations get their people outta there by like six,” Marc explains. But when I resist blowing off the meeting, he allows that this camp might be a little safer than others.
Daniel, my new friend who lives here and invited me over, says the same reassuring thing when I meet him on a busy side street, across from the Planet Creole radio station, and we start walking into camp, which unlike most of the others is lit by a few floodlights on impossibly high poles. I squint into the glare as Daniel leads me toward his house. “Did I call it a house? I’m sorry, should I say tent?” he says, and laughs. He leads me past row after row of stick-supported plastic until we arrive at our destination. “And here we are,” he says in near-perfect English. He spent some time in the States, before getting deported. “My piece of Tent City.”
But “tent” isn’t accurate, either. Daniel’s shelter, like the rest, is several sheets of sturdy plastic cobbled together. The ceiling is uneven, low, and leaky. The shelter is built on a steep dirt slope. Daniel says water gets in from all directions when it rains. And oh, how it rains: hard monsoon-season buckets pouring in through gaps in the roof and the sides, the earth floor liquefying, a mud flood forming under the higher-up rows of lean-tos until it collapses under its own weight and slides fast downhill into the tents pitched below. That’s the kind of water the displaced have got too much of: the kind that keeps people standing all night, so as not to wake up drowning.
Inside Daniel’s place, the only source of light is a flashlight aimed at the gray tarp overhead. The dim beam illuminates the USAID decal printed on it—which announces the gift as FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE—but little else. While I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, a child materializes at my left thigh.
“This is my daughter, Melissa,” Daniel says. “She’s 10.”
“Est-ce que je peux te donner un bisou?” she asks barely audibly. I sense the outline of braids in her silhouette, but can’t be sure.
“Bien sûr,” I tell her, she is welcome to give me a kiss, and I bend down to accept it, supersoft and tiny against my cheek. Daniel turns a bucket upside-down to offer me a seat. Everyone else gets on the floor, where Daniel has laid down some ceramic tiles he got from a religious charity he used to work for. There is just enough room for us four to sit; my shoulder touches Daniel’s fiancée’s; my feet touch his feet. Melissa lies across Daniel’s lap.
“Fortunately,” he says, “it’s not that hot in here right now.”
I nod. All our arms are slick and our faces are running with sweat. But “that hot” means as hot as it is during the day, when being under the plastic is like being in an oven, when I become so woozy and oppressed in the tents that I find myself either forgetting or reluctant to suck more hot air into my lungs.
Daniel is starting an organization called Redeem for Handicap. He talks about how when US soldiers set up in this camp after the quake, he helped run errands for them. He helped deliver babies. He did whatever he could to aid the aiders. But the Army is gone, and though Penn assures me that J/P HRO is in it for the long haul, Daniel’s friends who work in the camp have heard that most of the other aid organizations will leave soon. “Already, it’s been five months since we’ve gotten any food,” he says. But they do have water in the camp now; you can fill up buckets at pumps. It used to make him really sick, and sometimes the bleach taste is quite strong.
Why? Daniel asks me. Am I thirsty? There’s water that’s better for drinking, but that’s only for sale.
I am thirsty, but I hesitate to drink anything because Daniel doesn’t want me to use the communal portable toilets. It’s only eight o’clock, but it’s dark, and plenty of gals before me have been assaulted on that trip to the bathroom. Also, “The toilets aren’t used properly, and you might get a disease you aren’t interested in catching,” Daniel laughs.
That’s why everything smells like urine. To avoid the communal toilets, Daniel’s family uses a bucket in a corner. The three of them keep their plastic-walled hovel fantastically neat, and empty the bucket often, but at some point I inhale sharply and breathe in too much of its stink. I puke into my mouth, and pretend I didn’t. I suggest that we go for a walk.
Outside, it’s clear that plenty of other residents are improvising bathroom facilities, too. The air is still, and within seconds my nose and throat are coated with the reek of hot rotting shit. “People have a lot of needs here,” Daniel tells me while I repeatedly spit as inconspicuously as possible.
“There’s a lot of amputees because of the earthquake, right?” I ask, looking for my footing on the steep muddy trail. “How do they get around here?”
“Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.
But he points out that the amputees are hardly the only ones struggling. There’s a lady who lives right over here who lost her husband, Daniel gestures. She’s got kids, and she’s too sick to work, and she hasn’t eaten in a week. And this tall smiley fellow now shaking my hand is difficult to understand because he’s deaf from rubble that fell on his head. He needs a hearing aid. But Redeem for Handicap, or any other organization, can’t raise money from the international community without a website…
The camp buzzes: people gathering in the wider paths, vendors cooking hot dogs and selling water, people who have run long electrical cords to steal power to play an awful remake of “We Are the World” over the steady, chattery thrum. It’s early on a Friday night, but the noise is starting to die down, Daniel points out. People have to wake up early, lest they roast to death in their plastic ovens once the sun rises.
Suddenly, a skinny guy comes tearing up the path. He’s asking Daniel, he’s asking some guy behind Daniel, he’s asking everyone nearby frantically: What should he do? Some thugs are threatening his family because they want the space and piece of tarp his family occupies. The thugs say they will set it all on fire if he doesn’t move his family out. Is there anyone to talk to? Can he find a cop around here or what?
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 blue 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.
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.”
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.
“YOU’RE HERE at a horrible time,” my new buddy Mike says over cocktails at the Hotel Oloffson. He likes me because I remind him of the United States, where he was born. I like him because he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who drinks at the hotel and then feels it’s okay to knock on my door late at night, or tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.
But Mike’s made a bold statement, since many of his business associates have long kept their wives and kids in the safer Dominican Republic or United States, and since Mike’s had a .45 tucked under his clothes for the whole 14 years since he joined his mother’s family here. Whenever he travels to and from America, he has a hard time readjusting to Haiti. “But, you know, I put my horse blinders back on, and move on with my life.”
I’ve called him out for these horse blinders in an article online. He’s read my criticism of his and other local fancypants’ failure to visit the displacement camps they drive past 47 times a day and their insistence that I spend more time at the beach. Now, he rightly calls me out for being an uppity bitch. Do I, like, wander into homeless shelters back in San Francisco because of my unceasing duty to expose humanitarian problems? “I enjoy the life that I have here, even though the city sucks,” Mike says. “These are the headaches that come with the country.”
Headaches like his friend’s wife getting kidnapped from her house a few nights ago. The kidnappers demanded ransom; the cops who responded to the house call recommended paying it and left; money was exchanged, and now she’s back with her family. “They didn’t rape her,” Mike says. “Can you imagine?” At this point, in this country, I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.
Richard Morse—hotel manager/Haitian-American musician/long-white-braid-wearer/friend of Jimmy Buffett/Huffington Post blogger/popular Twitter user @RAMhaiti—appears at our table to discuss this case. He and Mike are mumbling about a guy who was in here the other night, who seemed to know too much about the kidnapping to not have been involved. Richard turns his tall frame and friendly rosy cheeks in my direction after I watch the men conspire for a few minutes.
“I may sound paranoid, Mac, but you can be paranoid, or you can be killed.” His tweets are often similarly ominous and vague. “People die around here. I’ve had my entire staff held in the kitchen at gunpoint.” Anyhoo, he’s got a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue that needs opening. Does Mike want a glass?
“She does,” Mike says, pointing at me because I’m sitting here drinking Black like a sucker. He turns back to me when Richard leaves. “You know, before the quake, everyone said what Haiti needed was a bomb dropped on it so people would fix it. Obviously we were wrong. No one’s ever gonna fix this. But I love it in this country. I don’t know why. You need to get out of the city sometimes. That’s why I live in the mountains. Up there, it’s peaceful, beautiful. You”—and here he’s referring to people in general, but also his creeping awareness that my nightly blind drunkenness is less good party-gal fun and more response to distress—”need a break.”
I’ve just gotten back from one, actually. I spent the last two days in the Central Plateau, up in the northeast. It’s not the gated mansions in the hills rimming the capital that Mike is talking about—it is in fact the poorest piece of the poor country—but it’s a three-hour drive and another planet away from Port-au-Prince. No city grit or rubble dust, no New Delhi-style traffic; the scenery surrounding the winding, bone-crunching roads sometimes looks like New Zealand, green and rolly with distant cloud-shrouded mountains.
Not that the earthquake left the area entirely untouched, of course: It’s now home to a massive influx of displaced people from Port-au-Prince who are exhausting the already scarce resources of the area. In response, US-based global aid agency Mercy Corps is running cash-for-work programs up there. When Haitian and visiting American staffers went to survey the progress, I tagged along.
You never know what’s going to happen when you say “aid” in Haiti. (Read “Aiding or Abetting.”) A Haitian in a camp might rail about the lack of desperately needed supplies in his state-of-emergency life. A Haitian at a fabulous hotel bar might tell you that some of his employees milk the aid system though they’re paid well and don’t live in camps, or that there’s this one flip-flop vendor he knows who was put out of business when a bunch of NGOs started distributing flip-flops after the quake. Some activists and economists say that although more people will die in the short term if all aid is terminated, leaving the country to work itself out could do enormous good, eventually. Anyone who’s aware of it would probably criticize the bureaucratic slog that has kept the $1.15 billion in reconstruction aid the US promised from being delivered, and the hold (PDF) Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has on further proposed rebuilding funds. A leader of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development will definitely fume that aid is just another self-serving interference on the behalf of foreign interlopers, who are hijacking rebuilding plans for this country, and Haitians need to be in control of their own destiny. And if you don’t believe they can handle that, you can just remind yourself that in 1804 they singlehandedly overthrew the French, which is—lest you forget—why America came to acquire that little thing called the Louisiana Purchase.
Mercy Corps’ cash-for-work participants in the Central Plateau don’t weigh in on these philosophical issues, but they seem pretty pumped to have jobs. I watch the NGO’s visiting public information officer, Lisa Hoashi, chat up men and women holding shovels by the side of the dirt road they are building. One 24-year-old hadn’t had a job in who knows how long, and he finds it very satisfying to work, even if it is only for 30 days. The local program supervisor admits that people call Mercy Corps “daddy”—like Haitians call Bill Clinton “governor” or “president”—because it made possible a road that the town had been asking the government to build for years. Another lady is glad to be able to send some of her kids to school with her wages; she hopes someday to be able to send all of them. Between this road-building initiative, and a forthcoming ag program, and the Kenbe-La (“hang in there”) program—which distributes vouchers for locally produced rice, oil, and beans in exchange for work—Mercy Corps is attempting to both alleviate immediate misery and foster long-term sustainable development. The hope is that the crop-management training or increased ease of getting around will evolve into a better standard of living even after the aid workers leave.
But the participants have their concerns. “Is there anything you want to ask me?” Hoashi asks each of her interviewees when she’s finished. Every single person comes up with the same worried question, and I hear it asked again days later at a training for elementary school teachers dealing with kids suffering from post-quake PTSD (“My students are very afraid of noise. Any rumbling truck passing by shakes them up…”): “How long does Mercy Corps plan on staying in Haiti?” How long before the other NGOs pull out? How long before the magazine writers and CNN hosts stop coming?
THE SKY OPENS UP fast and spectacularly in Haiti. One minute you’re sitting in dusty, broiling traffic; then Mike’s big shiny Mitsubishi pickup is being assaulted by wind-ripped leaves and hard-driving rain. At a stop, another American journalist and I press our faces against the passenger-side windows and stare at the displacement camp to our right, close enough to toss something in. The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts.
It only rains for 10 minutes. Still, there are rivers of water and garbage running through the streets. Huge branches litter the road. (“Jesus!” Mike says. “Even the trees are built wrong in this country!”) The power’s out at the hotel, which happens with some frequency, but this time, it’s not coming back on anytime soon. It’s got to be 100 degrees in my room without an air conditioner or a fan. Between the last week and a half of recurring rape nightmares and the possibility that a drunk patron who comes knocking at my hotel cottage will see the looser security, I’m too scared to open my windows or balcony door. I can’t imagine what it must be like in those unsafe, airless hotbox tents.
At least five camp dwellers in Port-au-Prince died in the storm. Thousands of shelters were destroyed. When I go see Daniel a couple of days later, he shows me that his was one of them. The back half of his “house” is a collapsed little pile of plastic; inside, under the remaining shelter, everything—clothes, sheets—is soaking wet. His fiancée is wiping and wiping at their ceramic tiles, but when anyone moves, more mud oozes up from beneath. “I guess it’s actually good we don’t have electricity in camp,” Daniel says. “All that floodwater and all these people, with downed wires?” He keeps saying he’s not sure which, but it must have been a hurricane or a tornado, and I keep telling him it wasn’t even either. Just a rain shower.
His daughter Melissa is less radiant today. The storm terrified her, Daniel explains. Would that that were the scariest threat to her here. At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.
“She was shaking like a leaf,” Daniel says as Melissa sits on rumpled fallen tarp, legs tucked up under an oversize white T-shirt.
She was shaking like Alina starts shaking when she least expects it. Like Alina, and the schoolchildren who break for the door at the rumble of a garbage truck. And Marc, who could hardly control his voice when he called to say that a woman died while waiting two weeks in the hospital for a doctor to see her. And an anti-rape activist who spoke from under a tarp that headquartered her organization, before they had to move because of death threats. “The way you saw the earth shake,” she said, “that’s how our bodies are shaking now.”
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