It is obvious that Camp Corail is the “show” camp for dignitaries and those at Camp Obama will continue to struggle with life and death issues.
CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, Haiti – You name it, Camp Corail has got it. And Camp Obama does not.
The organized relocation camp at Corail-Cesselesse has thousands of spacious, hurricane-resistant tents on groomed, graded mountain soil. The settlement three miles (four kilometers) down the road — named after the U.S. president in hopes of getting attention from foreigners — has leaky plastic tarps and wooden sticks pitched on a muddy slope.
Corail has a stocked U.N. World Food Program warehouse for its 3,000-and-counting residents; the more than 8,500 at Camp Obama are desperate for food and water. Corail’s entrance is guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police. Camp Obama’s residents put up a Haitian flag to mark their empty security tent.
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The camps, neighbors in the foothills of a treeless mountain, are a diptych of the uneven response to Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake. More than $12.7 billion has been pledged by foreign governments, agencies and organizations, including $2.8 billion for humanitarian response and another $9.9 billion promised at the March 31 U.N. donors conference.
In one camp, which dignitaries and military commanders visit by helicopter, those billions are on display. A short hop down the road, they barely register.
“We’ve heard the foreigners have given a lot of aid money. But we’re still living the same way as before, and we’re still dying the same way as before,” said Duverny Nelmeus, a 52-year-old welder-turned Camp Obama resident-coordinator.
Haiti’s needs are still enormous, but more than 100 days after the quake, the plan for dealing with them is unclear. Even the death toll is confusing: Government estimates hovered around 230,000 until the U.N. donors conference when, without explanation, the total jumped to 300,000.
There are officially 1.3 million people displaced by the magnitude-7 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands have massed in settlement camps that, like Camp Obama, sprouted with little or no planning. These Haitians live in makeshift tarp homes and shanties, govern their affairs with self-formed security committees and make do with whatever aid arrives.
It was said early on that nearly all the displaced needed to be moved ahead of the arriving rainy season to carefully planned camps like Corail. But it took months to procure land.
By March, aid officials decided instead that people should start going home, saying thousands of houses are still habitable or can be repaired.
It was even better, they said, for most to stay where they were: Agencies deemed just 37,000 people in nine camps at high risk for flash floods, said Shaun Scales of the International Organization for Migration.
But many people are not moving, nor do they want to stay where they are.
Persistent aftershocks and rumors of more to come — President Rene Preval warned of an impending earthquake at a news conference this month — are keeping people from going back. Private landowners and schools are threatening to evict squatters. Those who remain are suffering.
What they want is a better option. And for a few lucky people, right now, that’s Corail. The product of a coordinated effort by aid agencies, the United Nations, the U.S. military, the Haitian government and other entities, it has sprung up seemingly overnight on a cactus patch where the Cite Soleil slum meets the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets.
There was little here but a few concrete homes, disorganized camps and brush until a few weeks ago, when Preval announced that the government would seize — with compensation for the owners — 18,500 acres (7,490 hectares) of the arid land.
Authorities began moving people in immediately, even before services were in place. Croix-des-Bouquets officials say they were unprepared for the onslaught. Aid groups Oxfam, World Vision and CARE criticized the rush as violating human dignity.
Now ecstatic arrivals are streaming in aboard air-conditioned buses, clutching laminated ID cards with maps of the settlement, wearing green bracelets bearing their names. Nearly all come from the most famous camp in post-quake Port-au-Prince: the Petionville Club golf course, home to 45,000 quake survivors, elements of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne and a gaggle of Hollywood volunteers led by Sean Penn.
Aid workers lead the smiling tenants to their Chinese-made cylindrical tents, pointing out the floodlights, the police tent and where the 342 toilets and 24 showers are being built.
The plan is to stage about 6,000 people here along the 50-acre (20-hectare) “Sector 4” as the rainy season gets under way, even while U.N. trucks, U.S. Navy engineers and aid groups continue construction. Then they will start building sturdier shelters of wood, plastic and metal in adjacent Sectors 2 and 3.
There’s no word yet on what will be built in Sector 1, but locals are expecting some major development. Concrete homes and stores are also being built around the new camp.
Manushka Lindor, 23, is among the lucky. She sat in the shady tent with her 3-year-old son, Peterson St. Louis Jr., who squealed “Vroom! Vroom!” as the big construction trucks went by. Just a few hours after arrival, she was already planning to stay.
“I don’t have anywhere else to live. If they come here and build a house I can rent, I’d be very satisfied,” she said.
Her husband, Peterson St. Louis Sr., pushed a green wheelbarrow full of welcome bounty: a week of ready-to-eat meals for the whole family and hygiene kits with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
They had been living in the golf-course camp, dealing with crime, mud and danger. One day, Lindor said, a water truck slid backward into a tent and killed two people.
Their new home offers quiet, assistance and a chance for a fresh start. St. Louis, a 27-year-old barber, is setting up shop in the back of the tent with an office chair and a car battery to charge his electric clippers.
Outside it is a different story. Roads are cracked, and rubble lines the route. Twisted webs of steel rebar lie in heaps, collected by residents sick of waiting for help and now setting out to rebuild on their own. Police cars pull over by the side of the road to buy pirated gasoline amid fuel shortages.
In Camp Obama, the help has been spotty and often ineffective. Almost everyone has at least one plastic tarp, the “emergency shelter material,” in aid-worker parlance, that was a focus of relief efforts in the months after the quake. But those are leaking and falling apart.
Nobody remembers what aid group came when — the parade of foreigners becomes a blur. Someone left a rubber bladder to hold drinking water, another a black tank for the same. Both are broken and empty.
“We’d thank God for a glass of water,” Nelmeus said.
Cuban doctors have come and provided anti-malarial and other medicines, as did some Americans. But while Corail’s hospital tent is fully staffed, Camp Obama’s is usually empty. Nelmeus’ two children are sick with fever and awaiting treatment.
They cannot go to Corail, where organizers rejected a request by the Croix-des-Bouquets mayor to take in 10,000 homeless squatting on land in his town.
Corail’s organizers worry about the discrepancy.
Camp leaders told U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser on Wednesday that they have ruled out fences but are debating stepped-up patrols or other measures to keep aid-seeking neighbors out.
Obama residents said they had nothing to worry about: Getting into a better camp isn’t their goal.
“The better life is in America. If I went there, I would look like a young man. I would dance,” Nelmeus said.