In Haiti, Inaction Speaks Louder than Words: Hurricane Emily’s Near-Miss Too Close for IDP Camps

Posted on August 8, 2011


In Haiti, Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words: Hurricane Emily’s Near-Miss Too Close for Island’s Displaced Persons Camps (CounterPunch)

8 August 2011 Comments: 0

By. Mark Schuller and Mark Sny­der, CounterPunch

August 7, 2011– There is a Hait­ian proverb, se bouch ki manje tout manje, men se pa bouch ki pale tout pawòl, the mouth eats all the food, but not all talk comes from your mouth. In other words, actions count more than words.

The events this week in Haiti’s inter­nally dis­placed peo­ple IDP camps – dra­ma­tized by Hur­ri­cane Emily – high­light the impor­tance of this lesson.

Fol­low­ing the evic­tion of 514 fam­i­lies from the Sylvio Cator sta­dium in mid-July , high-ranking U.N. offi­cials issued its strongest lan­guage yet con­demn­ing forced evic­tions in Haiti as vio­la­tions of IDPs’ human rights.

The IDPs needed not only words but con­crete action.

On Wednes­day, August 3, the last of the 296 fam­i­lies were evicted from Camp Django in the Port-au-Prince sub­urb of Del­mas, the site of a rash of forced evic­tions. Camp Django was sit­u­ated a mere yards away from Car­refour Aéro­port, the Air­port Cor­ner which was vio­lently shut down at the end of May.

As the U.N. Police stood their watch at the camps entrance. The pur­ported landowner and munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment used many of the same tac­tics that over 40,000 evicted IDPs and 125,000 more fac­ing evic­tion have expe­ri­enced since they sought refuge on pri­vate and pub­lic prop­erty since the Jan­u­ary 2010 earth­quake. The res­i­dents of Django were offered 125USD to leave their tarp shel­ters. Though about 100 fam­i­lies accepted the fund­ing, many protested the offer said to be far too lit­tle to enable bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions else­where. Camp res­i­dents were then beaten by police and agents of the landowner. The IDPs were threat­ened with guns and machetes. Their shel­ters and the camp’s latrines were destroyed. Men wear­ing shirts of the Mayor of Del­mas’ agents made ver­bal threats, say­ing the will suf­fer worse than ille­gal evic­tions at other camps.

With vio­lence and fur­ther threats loom­ing, the IDPs orga­nized with an Anti-Eviction move­ment com­posed of Hait­ian civil soci­ety, other IDP camps, and inter­na­tional part­ners to resist the evic­tion. They held a press con­fer­ence to tell their story and on Mon­day, August 1, the date set for their evic­tion, they held a peace­ful protest to call atten­tion to the vio­la­tion of their rights.

That after­noon, the Hait­ian National Police (PNH) entered the camp along with the attack­ers from the prior inci­dents. They again told all the IDPs they had to leave on their own or they would be removed. At 9pm, after all the human rights inves­ti­ga­tors left, PNH and the same aggres­sors returned. They again had firearms, threw rocks, and threat­ened fur­ther vio­lence; pres­sur­ing the IDPs to leave the prop­erty. All the while UNPOL was on their post at the camp entrance.

Tough talk from high-ranking U.N. offi­cials for more assertive resis­tance against forced evic­tions failed to pro­tect the res­i­dents of the camp. After the vio­lence occurred, the Sta­bi­liza­tion Mis­sion of Haiti (MINUSTAH) had posi­tioned manned U.N. Police (UNPOL) SUVs out­side the camp. Two to three vehi­cles remained in shifts at the entrance of the camp day and night. But their mis­sion caused con­fu­sion within the camp, many IDPs stat­ing that they believed they were there to assist PNH and the pur­ported landowner with the eviction.

Camp res­i­dents reported that the U.N. offi­cers did not take any actions to stop the attacks as they were hap­pen­ing, and only acted at “tourist tak­ing pho­tos” after the inci­dents. Dur­ing the final threat on August 1, at 9pm, the UNPOL onsite claimed igno­rance of the pres­ence of PNH or the landowner’s agents, or of the final in a long suc­ces­sion of threats that pushed the IDPs to finally flee the camp.

More assertive resis­tance would appear to mean sim­ple pres­ence of the vehi­cles and offi­cers at the camp. But this proved to not be ade­quate to pre­vent the vio­la­tion of the rights of the Hait­ian cit­i­zens. By Tues­day morn­ing, the major­ity of the fam­i­lies left, of those that remain, not a sin­gle could explain where they would land. The last of the fam­i­lies fled Django on the eve of land­fall of trop­i­cal storm Emily, pos­si­bly mak­ing their evic­tion into some of the most dan­ger­ous of con­di­tions of any evic­tion yet.

The pop­u­la­tion waited in dread as Hur­ri­cane Emily drew nearer to Haiti.

With the impend­ing trop­i­cal storm, the gov­ern­ment of Haiti has urged peo­ple to evac­u­ate vul­ner­a­ble loca­tions, while they con­tinue to take a vis­i­ble role in the forced evic­tion from these same area. There was a red alert; flash flood­ing and mud slides were pre­dicted fol­low­ing Trop­i­cal Storm Emily, which was slated to drop as much as 20 inches of rain. Emily dumped sheets of rain begin­ning in the mid­dle of the night Thurs­day morn­ing on the south shore of Haiti, par­tic­u­larly Jacmel with thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing in IDP camps.

Mean­while, how were Port-au-Prince res­i­dents faring?

Radio Ginen reported a press con­fer­ence held by evac­uees from the Sylvio Cator Sta­dium who were reset­tled to “Bicen­ten­naire Camp” down­town, across from the old USAID office, yards from the bay. Res­i­dents denounced the fact that the camp – that still had yet to have any water, toi­lets, or other san­i­ta­tion installed – flooded fol­low­ing Mon­day evening’s rainstorm.

Sev­eral of the Inter­na­tional Orga­ni­za­tion for Migra­tion (IOM)‘s com­mu­ni­ca­tion team fanned out Wednes­day with the most recent pub­li­ca­tion of Chemen Lakay, Creole-language comic strip on a series of top­ics. This issue was on prepar­ing for a hurricane.

In eight camps Schuller vis­ited on Thurs­day, when Emily still loomed over­head, only three camps had the Chemen Lakay in hand from Wednesday’s dis­tri­b­u­tion. Com­mit­tee mem­bers in one camp in Car­refour reported that res­i­dents didn’t want to take the pub­li­ca­tion with advice such as tying down the tents and dig­ging deeper holes to hold the tent poles to rein­force the makeshift dwellings, buy­ing three days’ worth of food, and secur­ing impor­tant doc­u­ments in plas­tic bags. Accord­ing to one com­mit­tee mem­ber, “Why tell us that we have to do this and that when they know we don’t have any of these mate­ri­als?” Another quickly added, “They could have at least offered a ges­ture by buy­ing a box of ziploc bags for us to dis­trib­ute. They gave us noth­ing.” It’s like lavi men, siye atè, wash­ing your hands only to wipe them on the ground.

Most of the camps – selected based on a pur­po­sive sam­ple for Schuller’s five-week research across the Port-au-Prince met­ro­pol­i­tan area – were not so lucky.

Com­mit­tee mem­bers of one camp texted their IOM rep­re­sen­ta­tive, remind­ing them about the state of their emer­gency pre­pared­ness. “You see how ripped up our tarps are? They don’t even keep out a lit­tle rain or wind, to say the least about a trop­i­cal storm.” They fol­lowed up with a phone call, to no avail. As of this evening when the imme­di­ate threat had passed, no response came.

A leader in a camp known by res­i­dents as “Depoze” in Del­mas 2 called their IOM camp man­ager who typ­i­cally has a pres­ence in the camp every day. Luck­ily, he picked up. How­ever, the IOM rep­re­sen­ta­tive reported that MINUSTAH had informed the IOM [and, pre­sum­ably, other inter­na­tional agen­cies] to not go out­side, because it was too dan­ger­ous. Depoze responded, “But we in the camp are out­side. If it’s too dan­ger­ous for you, what about us?” to which the IOM rep­re­sen­ta­tive laughed.

Res­i­dents of a camp near Cité Soleil didn’t report being vis­ited by the Span­ish Red Cross, the camp man­age­ment agency, but that they didn’t need to call them or the emer­gency hot­line. A res­i­dent had received Red Cross train­ing and also updates. The com­mu­ni­ca­tions flag above the camp was green, embla­zoned with the word “vig­i­lance.” A nearby camp flew a red flag, as did camps neigh­bor­ing Bicentennaire.

One of the com­mit­tee mem­bers’ tarp had just ripped on Wednes­day night, dra­ma­tiz­ing the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. Pri­vately, this com­mit­tee mem­ber also wor­ried that camp res­i­dents didn’t really know what the color code means.

This said, the same Span­ish Red Cross who had man­aged another camp in Del­mas hadn’t done any sim­i­lar dis­as­ter response train­ing for camp res­i­dents. We were the only for­eign vis­i­tors to the camp on the day of Hur­ri­cane Emily to check on them. Indeed we had only seen one U.N. truck on the road all day long, and no NGO vehi­cles. Res­i­dents could only guess as to why the Red Cross – who spe­cial­izes in emer­gency dis­as­ter response – failed to pro­vide this ser­vice. Two the­o­ries were that the camp was under threat of evic­tion and that there was a tran­si­tion, from the Span­ish Red Cross to an inter­na­tional consortium.

Res­i­dents of Car­radeux, where some 30,000 IDPs still live under t-shelters, tarps, and tents under the con­stant pres­ence of a U.N. base, felt totally aban­doned. “Every­one tells us to move to a more per­ma­nent shel­ter. That’s just it. If we had some­where else to go, we would have already left the camp!” Were there any plans for tem­po­rary storm evac­u­a­tion? Of the ten peo­ple we asked, most of them com­mit­tee mem­bers of one or another “sec­tors” within the camp, none were aware of any. To dra­ma­tize the sit­u­a­tion, one of them called the two emer­gency num­bers given out on the mate­ri­als. One said “no response” and another “this num­ber is incorrect.”

“Rather than give an homage after we’re dead, they should respect the liv­ing. Rather than telling us after the dis­as­ter, they should have helped us pre­vent it.”

Late this after­noon, the storm was down­graded as it made its way north, away from the coun­try. This time around, the hun­dreds of thou­sands of IDPs were lucky.

But what about the next hurricane?

Haiti’s vul­ner­a­ble need more than words, they need action.

Mark Schuller is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Anthro­pol­ogy at York Col­lege, the City Uni­ver­sity of New York and Fac­ulté d’Ethnologie, Uni­ver­sité d’État d’Haïti. He co-edited Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Cat­a­stro­phe: Neolib­eral Strate­gies in Dis­as­ter Recon­struc­tion and co-directed doc­u­men­tary Poto Mitan: Hait­ian Women, Pil­lars of the Global Econ­omy. He is chair of the Soci­ety for Applied Anthropology’s Human Rights and Social Jus­tice Committee. He can be reached

Mark Sny­der is a found­ing mem­ber of the U.S. based human rights civil soci­ety group Inter­na­tional Action Ties. Work­ing as a com­mu­nity mobi­lizer he has lived and worked in rural and urban India, Peru, and the United States. As an active part­ner in a anti-forced evic­tion ini­tia­tive devel­oped with Hait­ian civil soci­ety groups and orga­ni­za­tions, IDP groups, and inter­na­tional NGO part­ners, Mark has spent the major­ity of the past year work­ing along­side the IDPs of Port au Prince, Haiti.

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