At a camp in Haiti, families long for a new start--and land to call their own

By Coco McCabe
Tents crowded onto a dry slope serve as home for a group of people who have aleady had to move three times since the January 2010 earthquake. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam

For the 89 families crowded into tents on a strip of land in Gressier, an hour’s drive outside of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince, uncertainty had become the daily constant in their lives.
Would they be forced off this rocky plot? Would they have to move again—for the fourth time since a massive earthquake destroyed their homes?  Where else could they possibly go?

“The biggest problem is the land,” said Clairin Webert, a sea of white tents billowing behind him. “Some people wake up at night crying because they don’t know what they’re going to do, where they’ll go.”

As more than a million people remain homeless a year after the seven magnitude earthquake ravaged the capital and surrounding communities, access to land on which families can build new homes and start new lives—or even continue to camp in makeshift shelters—has become one of the most difficult challenges they face. 

The Haitian government has been slow to develop a resettlement plan and to allocate land for survivors, many of whom were renters and now have nothing to return to. In early December, one of the results of that inaction was the knot of tents in Gressier, staked flank to flank, where about 375 people clung to the hope that help would come before they were kicked out of here, too.The man who owns the land allowed the families to set up camp for a few months, but wanted it back and the case was before a judge in a local court.

“If there was a word stronger than discouraged, that would be the word to describe how I feel,” said Webert. He was sitting in the shade under a tarp covering the shell of a ruined building. In the distance, the water—Caribbean blue—sparkled through the trees. But there was little sparkle here as Webert and fellow camp resident  Frederic Bonny talked about all this band of families from Mariani has been through.

They numbered just over 600 in the beginning when they sought shelter on the grounds of New Hope Ministry back in January. But when that landowner wanted the space back, they moved to a place called Morne Bateau, near a beach where the winds were dangerously strong. So in early September, the families moved again—to this slice of land in the neighborhood of Merger. With each move their ranks thinned:  some families returned to their ruined homes; others went to live with relatives and friends.

But for people like Yolande Chery, options were few. In early December, she had no way of making a living—and many mouths to feed, including the four-month-old baby she was nursing outside a tent. Chery lost the mattress repair business that supported her and her other children when the quake hit and she has been relying on the goodwill of her neighbors in nearby tents to share their food with her. Some days, she didn't eat at all.

And Chery’s worries were about to get worse: Her four other children she had sent to live with relatives after the quake were coming back to live with her. How would she support them?
“Give us land to live on when we set up our shelters,” said Chery. “And give us a grant so we can start a trade or business to survive.”

Latrines and water

As the families have moved from site to site, Oxfam has been helping to provide them with clean water and sanitation services, essential especially now that cholera, a deadly waterborne disease, has broken out across the country. At the Merger camp, Oxfam constructed a bank of emergency latrines at the back of the site that can be emptied weekly. Instead of dirt pits, they’re built around drums designed to prevent wastes from seeping into the seawater that runs close to the surface of the ground.

And with oversight from Charles Nesly, an Oxfam public health promotion supervisor, cholera prevention activities were in full swing at the camp. A cleaning committee made up of camp residents ensured that a small blue tank outside the latrines stayed full of water so people could wash their hands regularly. And each day, the latrines were sprayed with a water-chlorine solution to keep them clean.

At the other end of the camp, a yellow bladder, like a big pillow, provided water to the taps from which people came to fill their jugs and lug them back to their tents. The bladder got filled each day by a water delivery truck.

If you’re counting latrines, shower stalls, and water, the families in this camp are rich, said Frederic Bonny, a camp leader and teacher who has managed to find a part-time teaching job. But so much else—food, good educational opportunities, land to settle on—they don’t have, he said.

“As far as finding land, it’s not a problem, but every land we find, the owners want money,” said Bonny. And if an owner learns a non-profit group is supporting families in pursuit of that land, they’ll jack up the price.

If there was a government—a serious government—since the 12th of January to this day people wouldn’t be under tents,” added Webert. “The only way we are surviving is because of help from NGOs.”