Amnesty on the ground: The daily struggle in Haiti's camps

March 15, 2010

By Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International delegate on mission in Port-au-Prince Haiti

Two months after the earthquake, thousands in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere still await a first glimpse of humanitarian aid. In the four makeshift camps we visited during our first days in Haiti, life is a daily struggle and conditions are dire to say the least. People are without water, food, sanitation or shelter. Resilience and solidarity with each other are the only things these camp-dwellers can rely on.

A canal clogged with garbage in the Cité Soleil camp
A canal clogged with garbage in the Cité Soleil camp

There are camps everywhere. Every single open space, on public or private land, is occupied by hundreds or thousands of people. They are sheltered mostly under sheets and towels, in tents, under tarpaulins or, for the most industrious, in structures of recycled wood and tin.

In the camps we visited in Cité Soleil, Delmas and Champ-de-Mars, local committees have been created, improvising and taking charge of basic camp management tasks: coordination, security during the night, registration of families, activities for children, digging latrines or demarcation of common space. However, women’s participation and representation in the committees is limited.

That said, most women are out and about in the streets of Port-au-Prince selling goods and trying to earn what they can to feed their families. At some distribution points, other women are patiently forming orderly queues to receive rice or other items from humanitarian organizations under the watchful eye of the heavily armed US soldiers or UN blue helmets.

The destruction in the city is vast and most of the government institutions have collapsed or are damaged beyond use. The authorities, like thousands of other Haitians, are literally camping and working off the road.

The Port-au-Prince police station is located a few hundred meters from what was the Presidential Palace and overlooks Champ-de-Mars, one of the city’s open spaces – now occupied by more than 12,000 people.

This police station hosts one of the few units set up to respond to violence against women. It so now reduced to a dusty table on the pavement and is manned during the day only. Since the earthquake, several pages of a log book have been filled with complaints of sexual abuse and violence from women and girls, while in the camp on Champ-de-Mars, just across the road.

The day we visited the police station, a male officer on duty at the table unwillingly counted for us the number of cases registered in the log book: 52 cases of physical and sexual violence since the earthquake.

He said that many victims were minors, aged between 11 and 16, and that most of the assaults took place at night. Although he knew where to refer victims for medical attention after a sexual assault, he was unable to explain why, on the previous night, a mother seeking police assistance in the attempted rape of her 17-year-old daughter by four young men, was told that the police could not do anything and that the security in the camps was the responsibility of the President of the Republic. Quite a blow for the population’s confidence in the police…

Life begins among the rubble
Wilson, a baby boy, was born the night before our second visit to Cité Soleil, a makeshift camp of 272 families. The mother gave birth in the most unsanitary conditions imaginable: on the dirt, a few metres away from a canal of stagnant and putrid water, clogged with garbage and covered with flies and mosquitoes.

Another woman from the camp assisted Wilson’s mother in what was described to us as a difficult delivery, without clean water, towels or sterile tools to cut the cord.

The one-day-old Wilson rested calmly in his mother’s arms, unperturbed by our presence and the swarm of mosquitoes that invaded the space under bedsheets tied up with strings. That’s the home where he was born. This improvised shelter provided little more than some shade, with no protection at all against other hazards. It leaves three children and their widowed mother exposed to the rain and the recurrent flooding in Cité Soleil and vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The rainy season looms and all the people we talked to fear the worst. Shelter is what they need and what they ask for. That is their priority.