Monday, April 12, 2010

Update from Port-au-Prince

After the January 12 earthquake, our organization has been making efforts to organize and mobilize a tent city in Plaz Mozole in Port-au-Prince. Below is the most recent update I sent over our list serv after a trip we took to check up on things:

We arrived in Port-au-Prince Monday evening (3/29/10) and stayed, as we did before, at the house of some of my husband's family members. We met up with Celony, our trusty Haitian team member that we left to work on organizing/mobilizing a tent city in Port-au-Prince in late January, along with his brother Geneve who has been assisting him, early Tuesday morning. We had been in touch through cell phone conversations and I had been sending funds to cover their living expenses, but we had a lot of catching up to do in person. When we left them in January, we had built a house out of palm leaves where they were to live and use the house as a meeting place and place to hold elections as he was meeting with groups representatives from each house and holding elections among them to choose one representative for each group of 25 houses (or tents). To make a long story short, the house was overtaken by what Celony referred to as a group of pot-smoking bandits. The house was taken over after just one meeting and election took place.

They were now homeless but luckily ran into a friend from their home town Gonaives who was a university student in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake. His apartment building where he was living was destroyed as well as his university. He works as a public school teacher but has not received any pay since the earthquake. School was set to open again in Port-au-Prince yesterday as was the word on the street but no one knew if this would actually take place and no official statement or plan had been made here. When I stated that I thought that government-funded institutions like that would still pay their employees during the aftermath of the earthquake because the government funds should still be available, they laughed and said that that might happen in a developed country but in Haiti, public school teachers often have to rally and use such actions such as strikes to receive their pay checks.

This friend now began living in an apartment in the building next to his which was unharmed. Celony and Geneve had been staying with him but no one had paid the landlord yet. The large apartment building across the street was completely destroyed with an estimated 30 bodies still uncovered beneath the rubble. The group sleeps on the roof except on rainy nights and more so uses the apartment as a safe place to store their belongings. This was not the case for everyone still living in houses made of block. Some have gotten over their fear and are living normal lives inside their houses.

As you drive through the city, you see that the majority of rubble that was there during our first trip two months ago was still there. Celony and his friend had helped an American church group clean up the rubble of a broken church a few weeks ago but there doesn't appear to be any efficient leadership over such efforts in the city as a whole. There were groups of Haitians in blue t-shirts with a Creole logo that basically says "Haiti Work Group" flocked in certain parts of the city. Not to appear judgmental of the effort, but I only saw this group along roadsides in flocks with about 20 people in the group and about three or four with shovels while the rest were standing and watching. The group did not appear to be removing rubble but doing some other sort of work. This led me to conclude that the clean up effort continues to lack leadership and efficiency.

As for the tent cities, there have been some changes there but basically just small improvements and nothing that seems to be leading toward a long term solution. I do not mean that to diminish the improvements as they are successes and improve the quality of life but just to think in the long term and the continued improvement of the quality of lives. There appeared to be more tents and tarps distributed and utilized. There were also several portable toilets at each site. I can't speak for every site, but there are large water tanks at many sites that are filled by a truck each morning I believe. These are definitely improvements for the time being but the quality of life in these areas remains fairly miserable. There is little that one can do and little that one can own with a small temporary home in a very crowded and hot situation with little shade. I am always amazed, though, at the manner in which Haitians live in such situations and have learned a lot about patience and resilience through that.

Although many tents have been distributed, I would say that more than half of the people still live in houses they have constructed themselves out of wood scraps, tin, plastic, tarp, and sheets. However, it seems as though most people have expanded their houses a little causing the sites to appear more crowded with less walking space. People still talk about "them" coming to remove them from the land they are on and taking them to a site that is being prepared for them somewhere else. I have still seen no evidence of truth to this. When asked who "they" is referring to, Haitians normally reply "the American army" or "the government" or someone they perceive to have control and authority. However, no one I have spoken to seems to have faith in the Haitian president but refer to him as a thief.

Celony's community organizing efforts were set back when the house was taken over. Also, a neighbor had the census notebook in his possession and didn't want to give it to Celony. He demanded money in exchange for the notebook and Celony, having little money and not wanting to encourage such disorder, refused. He didn't start over with the census at this time but spent the few months meeting people and building relationships. I think that things are progressing fine because it was important that he took that time to build relationships. It may have been too soon to hold elections earlier on also because people in the tent cities need time to get to know each other as well before choosing a representative. He is now involved in a church in Port-au-Prince. He also has been able to travel to different tent cities, speak with people, and observe.

Food distributions apparently take place between 2 and 4 times a month. Celony says that the American army continues to come in large trucks to do this. Just as before, he says that sometimes distributions are done fairly successfully with cards distributed to houses and then lines formed to exchange a card for food. Other times, he says, food continues to be distributed in a mob fashion that creates fighting. He said that he has witnessed American soldiers distributing food in this way and then videotaping the outbreak. We both agreed that that is disgusting. While we were in Port-au-Prince this trip, we saw American soldiers drive by in Jeeps but did not see any other activity they were doing.

Because several banks collapsed, there are too few banks to serve the amount of people that have bank accounts. We spoke with and witnessed people who waited in line from 8am when the bank opened until 2:30pm when banks closed and never made it into the bank. Foreigners and others with connections often skip the line and the security allows them in so this just backs up those without such connections who are waiting in line. We also heard several accounts of people being robbed as soon as they exit the bank. Celony testified that he was on a public bus about a month back and two men with guns entered the bus and forced all of the passengers to give them their money. We encountered the Haitian police on several occasions directing traffic and cruising around. However, I am unsure of the government's efforts. Someone told me that Preval, the Haitian president, is in the American embassy. I am not sure where the American embassy is or if this was true.

We spent time visiting people at Plas Mozole or Mozole Park which is the tent city where our efforts are being focused. We spoke with several groups, restating the plan and assuring them that we were sticking to the original plan of dividing the houses into groups of 25 with a representative from each house. Then weekly meetings would be held with each group and a representative would be elected for each group. Then there should be a weekly meeting with Celony and the representatives of each group. I wrote a letter ahead of time to outline this plan. Celony began the census again, distributing this letter as he went along and communicating the plan. Many people were encouraged that we are sticking to the original efforts but some complained about wanting to receive something tangible and immediate. We spoke a lot about the need to organize and the long term benefits that organizing in a way that each household has a voice will have. Distributing items that were not enough to please everyone would likely cause disturbance and distraction from the long term goal. People responded well and seemed to understand but Celony will likely be continuing to explain the same points on a daily basis for awhile.

During the census of the first group (this second time), some people understood that the letters being distributed were for a similar purpose as cards distributed in exchange for food and began confronting Celony, demanding that he give them letters and pulling them out of his pocket. Others forced that he wrote their name in the notebook and didn't listen to his request to wait in their houses. This caused a commotion. We went away for a few hours and when we returned, he finished the job successfully. We have learned that that is a necessary approach - if things get heated, remove the source of the heat and come back later. Patient explanation always helps things too.

When we attempted to hold the first meeting with the first group, we gathered in a little space under a tree in the park. I thought about not attending the meeting because sometimes my white presence is directly correlated to the distribution of goods and therefore mobbing but it was necessary that I at least was present for the first meeting. By this time it seemed as though my presence was more understood in the community as someone who was working with Haitians to organize and not distributing goods so it did not cause excessive grouping. Nonetheless, we found that it was impossible to hold a meeting without doing so in an enclosed space where we could kick out anyone who was not a household representative in the first group. I wanted to attempt to kick out the group that had taken over our original palm leaf house but Celony opposed. Someone then led us to a room in the park that a nearby bus company had built to house out of town bus drivers. It could tightly fit 25 people. We negotiated with the owner of the bus company and ended up renting it ridiculously cheaply for one month. If things go as planned, all houses and tents in the park should be grouped into one of the groups after this month and meetings should be regularly held. At that point we will consider beginning the construction of more palm leaf houses to serve as meeting places.

Following the example set by the Virginia Tech volunteer group that was here with us in Puerto Plata during spring break, we taught many people at the park how to make bracelets. We then purchased those made well and left the remaining yarn with Celony to continue the little business. Just as the spring break trip did, we began teaching the bracelet making to women. During our first trip, I talked to several members of a women's group that was already formed. They were who we originally planned doing this with. However, on our second day, many men flocked to learn. At one point there was about 20 men grouped around our car making bracelets, attaching the one end to different bolts on the car. A car full of Haitian police stopped by suspiciously and began asking questions. They left and then a larger truck of police appeared a few minutes later. About three officers got out of the truck with guns. I quickly let them know that I realized that the group was getting too big and we were leaving now, which we did. It sounds ridiculous and it was, but I was glad to get away because we had run out of yarn to teach with and things were getting a little heated. I have some green and pink bracelets I will send to Winchester, Virginia, my hometown, for possible Apple Blossom Festival sales and some orange and maroon that can be sent to Blacksburg for Hokie sales! All of the remaining yarn Celony has are Hokie colors as well.

Friday morning we left Celony by himself with Plas Mozole community members as his assistants, relieving Geneve from his duties, dropping him off in Gonaives, and heading through the potholed, guardrailless mountains to the north.

Thanks for reading.

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