Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fighting Fire

Camp Lycèe Toussaint after an arson attack. Photo from Mark Synder. 

By Alexis Erkert, Other Worlds
March 28, 2012

When police and the landowner commanded Michelène Pierre to vacate her tent on a Sunday afternoon so that they could light it on fire, she responded: “If you want to light me on fire along with this entire camp, go ahead. I’m not leaving.” The police bypassed her tent, but continued to threaten other residents of Camp Kozbami, setting flame to six tents.

Camp Kozbami is the fifth camp to be arsoned in two months. As landowners and the government push to close camps inhabited by those displaced by the earthquake that rocked Haiti 26 months ago, a reported 94,632 individuals are facing forced eviction.

Residents of the 660 displacement camps scattered throughout the Port-au-Prince area are experiencing increasing levels of threats and violence. Repeated acts of arson have both killed six people and displaced hundreds. Though cramped living conditions and a lack of available water during Haiti’s dry season have made camps vulnerable to accidental fires, camp organizers believe that all the recent fires have been deliberate.

Until her own tent was burned down, Arlette Célissaint lived in Camp Lycèe Toussaint. At a press conference on Friday, March 23, Célissaint and four other camp residents described the horror of waking up at 2:00 in the morning to a camp engulfed in flames. “Fire took over... We were all in our tents, all asleep and suddenly it was, ‘Run!’ and everyone started to get up and run. There were people burned on the spot and six went to the hospital…”

That morning, 96 of approximately 120 shelters were burned and five people, including a mother and her three children, were killed. Families lost everything they had managed to salvage from the earthquake and the little they have saved since, including money and legal documents. To date, none of the relevant government authorities have launched an investigation into the crimes. Neither the government nor aid agencies have stepped up to provide these doubly-displaced—and doubly-traumatized—communities with adequate disaster assistance.

“Look out for us.” Looking directly into a TV journalist’s video camera, Marie Charles, another former Camp Lycèe Toussaint resident said quietly, “We ask the government to look out for us. We’re people, not animals, but the conditions that we’re living in are not fit for people.”

Camp residents like Célissaint and Charles are raising the volume of their denunciations about the fires and about evictions in general with protests, press conferences and letters to the government. Others, like the families in Camp Maïs Gate, are physically refusing to move. Though paid thugs have been harassing them for weeks, families refuse to leave until they are provided with an adequate alternative.

No such alternative yet exists. Though the government is touting a plan called ‘16/6’ as a solution to Haiti’s housing crisis, it does not address the underlying structural challenges to relocation by making land available to camp dwellers for permanent resettlement or building houses. Instead, ‘16/6’ targets six camps, or approximately 5% of the displaced population, providing families $500 apiece to relocate into 16 communities. Critics say implementation of the plan has been rife with corruption and that it has accelerated rates of violent forced evictions in other camps. Though the ‘16/6’ model is being replicated by aid groups in a handful of additional camps, there is still a glaring absence of any comprehensive housing plan.

Human rights advocates and camp residents point to the eviction of a camp called Place Jeremie in late December as a prime example of the corruption and disregard for displaced peoples endemic in the relocation process. Though families were supposed to receive $500 apiece to relocate, police came to the camp in the middle of the night, armed with machetes and batons, destroyed tents and violently evicted the families living there. The Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA) reports that the majority of residents received $25 in compensation.

Regardless of whether families receive $25 or $500, there is no evidence that they do indeed wind up in safer, more dignifying circumstances once they’ve relocated. Housing in Haiti is expensive and the numbers make it clear that there is not enough undamaged housing available in Port-au-Prince to absorb displaced people, 80 percent of whom were renters before the earthquake. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, current shortages will leave more than 300,000 without housing.

With the displaced population down to 490,545 from 1.2 million just after the earthquake, Antonal Mortimé of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) wonders where people who have left the camps have gone. “Have they moved to the countryside? Back into their houses? Are enough new houses being built? Are new camps springing up? Or are people returning to fissured and unsound homes? No-one knows.”

Thus, an assembly of local human rights groups called the Right to Housing Collective is supporting camp dwellers in a call for a comprehensive national housing plan that includes public housing for the displaced. In the short-term, they are calling for an end to the violence plaguing camps and for a moratorium on evictions.

“We are struggling alongside the people whose rights are being trampled, to create a movement that forces the government into taking responsibility for its citizens…” said Jackson Doliscar. Doliscar is a community organizer with FRAKKA, a coalition of 26 camp committees and grassroots organizations and a key member of the Right to Housing Collective. “People are unaware of their specific rights, especially as displaced people. They don’t think that they have the right to ask anything of their government… That’s beginning to change… Many camps are ready to join hands.” And indeed, the arson attacks have renewed camp dwellers and rights advocates’ sense of urgency.

During Friday’s press conference, Mortimé reminded his government that the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement require that they make every effort to guarantee the right to life and security of all earthquake victims.

Mortimé adds, “We aren’t just denouncing, we are pronouncing. We are proposing and advocating for solutions that come from displaced people themselves and we will not give up on pressuring the government to take responsibility for meeting these demands.”  

To read more about the ways that the Haitian housing movement is creating and promoting solutions to the housing crisis, read Home: From displacement camps to community in Haiti.  

Alexis Erkert is the Another Haiti is Possible Coordinator for Other Worlds. She has worked in advocacy and with Haitian social movements since 2008. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.  

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Alexis Erkert and Other Worlds.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


In rainy season – or the abrupt onslaught of daily, heavy rains currently preceding it – owning a motorcycle becomes really inconvenient. (Read: tonight we drove 4 miles uphill in the pouring rain, our lips pursed and legs tucked up as high as we could get them, through rivers of trash and sewage flooding downhill. We got soaked and it was gross.)

Then, with almost half a million people are still homeless in this city, I feel guilty for complaining about my ride home. You can probably already guess how I feel about the Red Cross idea to build a hotel for foreigners in Port-au-Prince...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Birthday Blog

He-ello, remember us? We used to blog here.

Our days have been extra crowded of late. Here is a list of blogs that we've considered posting, but have been too busy working or playing to follow through on:
  • kanaval 2012: round two (cousins visit and we do all kinds of cool stuff)
  • let there be light (on 4 days with no electricity and Haiti's last minute switch to daylight savings time) 
  • to buy or not to buy a bulletproof vest (Ben's ruminations on being a journalist and Haiti's "security" situation)
  • the glorious experience of PARAGLIDING in Jacmel
  • recent political madness
  • pictures from a lovely long weekend in and around Cap-Haitian
  • our vegan + gluten-free diet experiment [sorry, no birthday cake, Ben]
  • the abrupt start to another rainy season

Today is another crowded day as we celebrate Ben's birthday and also remember Martha on the one-year anniversary of her death.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"When it rains we will grow again": International Women's Day

Originally published over at Other Worlds
March 14, 2012
Text by Alexis Erkert, Photos by Ben Depp (scroll over slideshow to view captions)


“As activists, we commemorate this as a day of struggle, a day to make our voices heard until someone pays attention and helps provide solutions to our problems." Facing the Haitian parliament with a throng of banner-waving and singing women at her back, Rachelle Fondechaine of Women Fighting for the Development of Haiti continued, "Today is March 8th! It's a day when women workers in New York first took to the streets in to demand their rights in 1857. This day is marked in our memories, and as women in Haiti, we have no support, we are left in the street, our children don't have access to school...”

Hours earlier, hundreds of women converged in front of the Ministry for the Status and Condition of Women and, dancing to the rhythm of an all-women street band, wove their way through the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince to the Haitian parliament. Supported by more than a dozen local human rights organizations and activist groups, protesters' demands ranged widely from prosecution of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, to better conditions in factories, to UN accountability for cholera and sexual violence.

Women head nearly half of Haitian households and account for most of the country’s subsistence farmers. As traditional caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick, the burden on women has increased since the January 2010 earthquake. In displacement camps, where nearly 500,000 still live, women continue to face alarming rates of rape and gender-based violence. A recent report from Gender Action reveals that post-earthquake investments in Haiti have largely neglected issues of gender equality.

But over the years, Haitian women's groups have made important gains including legal equality for women within marriage and the criminalization of rape. Significant legislation is currently being drafted to provide increased protection from gender-based violence. And this year, on Women's Day, protesters reminded onlookers of their power, singing, "Women, we are reeds. You can cut off our heads, you can burn our roots, but when it rains, we will grow again."

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text you use to Alexis Erkert, Other Worlds and the slideshow to Ben Depp.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

All Shook Up

It's been a long time since I've been afraid to change or take a shower lest a tremor propel me out of doors naked; afraid to have Ben out of sight; or, perhaps more rationally, afraid to sleep under our concrete roof. We camped out under the tin roof of our porch and our neighborhood was astir for most of the night, as collectively the city relived memories of January 12, 2010. Not even Luna wanted to be in the house.

Last night we experienced a relatively small earthquake (magnitude 4.6), whose epicenter was some 20-30 km away in Jimani, in the Dominican Republic. There was no damage, but my own visceral and physical reaction took me by surprise. Long after the ground stopped shaking (it was only a few seconds, after all), my body trembled and my heart raced. 

This moving note was published this morning by Frantz Duval, editor of Haiti's largest newspaper, Le Nouvelliste: Everything is in our bodies. It echoes a comment Ben made last night: "The earth releases its tension, and that tension is transferred into the bodies of those of us living on it."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kanaval 2012: Round 1 (Jacmel)

For our first round of carnival celebrations, we spent four days watching as the quiet and charming town of Jacmel, site of Haiti's best "cultural" carnival parade, transformed. Rara bands and street theater troupes rehearsed, costumes and paper mâche masks were completed, wooden stands erected, streets swept, advertisements and kitsch displayed, and tourists descended. Ben was busy working on a story (which he promises to show you eventually), so here is a glimpse of our days through my eyes:
And then, finally, came Sunday's parade. The whimsical, colorful, wonderfully satirical parade, depicting everything from cholera, safari animals, soda bottles, vodou spirits and seedy politicians to the darker side of Haiti's history -- slavery, dictatorship, the massacre of Creole pigs.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


This song quite literally provided Haiti's soundtrack for February. Each year, all of Haiti's top bands and artists write a carnival song. J. Perry's 'Dekole' (which means to take off or to become unstuck) was among this year's favorites. Weeks after carnival's end, this song is still blaring from just about every taptap and corner boutique. It's certainly still in the top five at our neighborhood Cyber Cafe/Barbershop/Beer Joint.
The video was filmed in Jacmel, a lot of it at the Hotel Florita, and Miss Haiti stages her entrance at minute 2:17. 

M’ta renmen pou peyi-m dekole // I would like my country to take off
Ole-o, ole-o, ole-o, dekole-ole-o
Ayiti cheri, m’sonje lontan ou te la pèl dèzanti // Haiti darling, I remember you used to the the Pearl of the Antilles
La Perles des Antilles // The Pearl of the Antilles
Yo maltrete-w bèl ti peyi mwen // They mistreat you, my beautiful little country
Men sa pa fini, wap reprann figi-w // But it's not over, you'll recover your image
Ooh-o, Ouh-o

Si-n vle peyi-n avanse// If we want our country to move forward
Fòk nou mache tèt kole // We need to work together


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