We’re Tired of Sleeping on Garbage: Haiti’s Internally Displaced


Originally Published in Haiti Liberte: August 11 – 17, 2010, Vol. 4, No. 4; August 25 – 31, 2010, Vol. 4, No. 6


"Nou bouke ap domi sou fatra" ( We're tired of sleeping on garbage.)


The stories coming out of precarious camps of internally displaced people (IDP) scattered around Port-au-Prince are tragedies of ancient Greek and Biblical proportions.

Despite his messianic pretensions on a one day visit down from the US in his private jet, hip-hop-artist-turned-presidential-candidate Wyclef Jean failed to address any of the issues faced by Haiti’s 1.7 million homeless. Posturing as Moses ready to part the waters to free his people, Jean is more akin to Narcissus, who, entranced by his own reflection, parts the water only to drown himself.

Still traumatized by January’s massive earthquake, tens of thousands of families are subject a relentless cycle of exodus, dispersal, and brutality at the hands of the Haitian National police (PNH) and privately hired armed groups, in violation of Haitian and international law.

This Thursday, Aug. 12, residents from the IDP camps facing expulsion all over Port-au-Prince will rally in front of the National Palace to demand a moratorium on evictions and attention to their plight.

Here are some of the most dramatic cases.



The Children of Camp Immaculée


After more than a month of nightly assaults by unidentified aggressors and after exhausting all avenues to get security, the IDPs evicted from Camp Immaculée, Cité Soleil, on Jul. 12 continue to be persecuted and intimidated in their new site, Michico.

“The bandits are in a cycle of abuse and the attacks are now political,” said Rosemond Joseph, a member of the camp. “They accuse us of receiving money from the IOM (International Organization on Migration) and IAT (International Action Ties) because they are paying attention to our situation. It is just a pretext to continue their attacks as they know it’s not true, but they want us to disappear.”

(The IAT is an independent human rights organization closely monitoring forced evictions.)

After weeks of begging for protection from the Haitian National Police (PNH) and the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH), the residents caught one of the attackers and turned him over to the police two weeks ago. Rather than investigate and charge the accused, they released him without charges. The 17-year-old, who Rosemond Joseph claims has been arrested several times, later filed a complaint with the police against some camp members. A few evenings later two camp residents were imprisoned for allegedly “abusing a minor.” They spent three days in jail without charges and now want the judge to tell them why.

Meanwhile, harassment continues on a weekly basis, placing residents in constant fear. Camp members say there have even been threats to kidnap the international observers assisting them. The musical group which IDPs suspect was behind the attacks has now scheduled for-profit cultural activities and events in the public park where Camp Immaculée was. The IDPs want the Mayor to answer why they are subjected to such attacks on public land.

At a meeting between various camps facing eviction, Rosemond Joseph traced the IDPs plight back to the United States government: “Their oligarchic and discriminatory politics hit the most vulnerable the worst. Since we’ve been in the back yard of the US for 200 years, they force us to live in division and misery and to not progress and take our own independence.”

Lawyer Mario Joseph, who heads the International Lawyers’ Office (BAI), is representing the IDP in court. The BAI along with the Institute for Justice and Democracy In Haiti (IJDH) are helping grassroots housing rights and IDP groups to mobilize. They provide legal and public advocacy, investigate cases of wrongful eviction and other violations, and seek justice for IDPs in Haitian courts and international forums. A team of Haitian and international human rights lawyers is preparing a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) “against the Haitian government on behalf of Haitians who have been threatened with or forcibly evicted from internal displacement camps.”


The BAI is also investigating the case of people evicted by the fancy Port-au-Prince highschool St. Louis de Gonzague, which the Haitian government awarded on Jul. 12 for hosting IDPs on their campus. It wasn’t mentioned at the awards ceremony that the IDPs had been forcibly evicted and relocated to Camp Carredeux. Furthermore, the IAT documented that some 2,500 people from Carredeux had their tents bulldozed without warning in order to make room for IDPs being evicted from St. Louis de Gonzague.

The same people were bulldozed a second time a week later. They moved farther up the hillside but remain without any water, sanitation or assurances that they will not be bulldozed again. They currently rely on water buckets brought from neighboring camps to cook their food.

So, rather than clearing rubble from the streets, bulldozers are plowing over the tents of undesired “squatters” only to resettle IDPs expelled from elsewhere. In this way, IDP families are criminalized, excluded from the decision-making process, and told little about what is going on, least of all when or if the cycle of forced expulsions will end.

According to Nicole Phillips, an IJDH lawyer, “camp organizers, claiming to operate under the authority of the UN’s Camp Coordination and Management Cluster, erected a physical barrier to segregate the residents who had been relocated from Lycée St. Louis Gonzague from the community who had originally settled there after the earthquake. The new residents were labeled the ‘official’ camp residents. The ‘official’ camp residents

received identification cards that allow them to access food, water and medical treatment that non-governmental organizations regularly supply on-site.”

Thus UN and NGO workers are arbitrarily segregating camps into “legitimate” IDPs and those who are not. This is the obscene result of a bureaucratic machine that gives priority to the rights of purported “private property” owners over the rights of IDPs, creating “haves” and “have-nots” even among people who have lost everything. Although “legitimate” IDPs have been smuggling buckets of water to the “haves nots” in Carredeux, one community leader noted that “two buckets of water per family per day is nothing, after cooking there is nothing left with which to clean ourselves or wash clothing.”




A boy sitting by the swamp in Barbancourt II


This camp houses some 310 families (approximately 2,000 people), marooned there since the earthquake. Non-drinkable water, showers and latrines are provided to residents by the Red Cross, but nothing more. With cruel irony, the camp is located across the street in full view of a huge warehouse with a tantalizing “Food for the Poor” written across the facade, but the families at the camp have been forbidden access and never received food from any other organization.

The conditions in the camp are a public health disaster. There are rats and a reeking sewage swamp approximately two feet deep which spawns mosquitoes and is growing at the far corner of the camp because a neighbor blocked the water which runs through the camp from crossing onto his property. There is a toddler crawling on the mud floor of his tarp home perched right beside this cesspool due to overcrowding. Residents say the swamp has existed for almost three months and that when it rains, the sludge raises up to people’s knees.

A Haitian man named Gilbert Craan claims to own the land and operates warehouses on the property. Craan has been trying to forcibly expel the families since April, threatening the residents to leave five times, twice accompanied by as many as 24 PNH officers who pointed their guns at camp residents. While being terrorized by the PNH, residents had to raise a white flag declaring “We are not at war; we are internally displaced people.”

It’s hard to believe anyone would cling to such an awful, hazardous camp, but the state has provided residents with no place to relocate. Craan’s claim to the land, like most Haitian private property, is highly disputed. According to Mario Joseph: “All land in Haiti is controlled by the elite through years of bribery and corruption.” He estimates that, “in as much as 70% of forced expulsions, the land claims are disputable.”


The swamp in Barbancourt II


But even if landlords can prove their legal title to the property, according to Privat Précil, former Director General of the Ministry of Justice (from 2003 – 2004) and a Haitian attorney with extensive experience in land rights, Haitian law draws from the Napoleonic code, which permits “squatting” until a justice of the peace issues a letter stating that people are living illegally on the land, and a court serves an eviction warrant, which can take two years or more. These rules apply not only to legal tenants, according to Précil, but to anyone living on a landowner’s land.

Most expulsions of IDPs taking place today rely on lawless methods: the cutting off of power, water, food, preventing access, threats, harassments and the use of force. “Holding an axe over the heads of the IDPs is a tool that we have seen used in many different camps: threatening violence, then setting a date; it has worked in many areas” said the IAT’s Mark Snyder.

“Securing camps is our priority,” said MINUSTAH’s Gen. Geraldo Chaumont at a Jul. 29 press conference. “We have a permanent 24 hour presence, seven days a week in five camps. This does not mean the rest are not left to the hands of fortune. We have patrols.” Chaumont claimed there are 700 camps (meaning camps with more than 100 IDPs, smaller ones are dubbed “phantom camps”) while the official count in June was around 1,342 camps. Security for five out of some 1,342 camps is not even 0.4%.

Elsewhere, MINUSTAH officers and police have stated that they understand that the patrols are not effective to prevent rape, violence, or attacks from the armed aggressors, even thought their stated mandate is “protecting civilians’ human rights.” Chaumont goes on to say, “Our experience in other countries indicates that when there are security problems in camps, people leave. This is not the case here. Camps are even known to grow.”

In Port-au-Prince’s Carrefour district, all 210 families of Camp Napoleon were forcibly evicted by the landlord last week. Another eight camps in the area comprising about 15,000 families are faced with imminent expulsion, according to Suze Jean, an activist working to organize all eight camps.

In Carrefour 36, Pastor Eddy François of the Evangelical Mission for Social Action of the Last Hour, is trying to evict 350 families. He regularly threatens camp residents. “If you don’t leave immediately, the Holy Ghost will throw rocks at you” is one of his threats. “If you don’t leave by Aug. 29, the ground beneath you will shake” is another.

On Aug. 12, the internally displaced people (IDP) of about a dozen camps threatened with forced expulsion marked the 7th month since the earthquake with a demonstration in front of the ruined National Palace. Though authorities didn’t grant the IDPs a permit and blocked all traffic in front of the Palace, about 100 people managed to demonstrate there for a moratorium on forced expulsions and an end to violations of their human rights as defined under Haitian and international laws. Protestors also called on the Haitian government to immediately verify land ownership titles and appropriate all empty lands held by big landowners.

This was the first collective action by residents of different camps who are threatened with or victims of forced expulsion, but not the last. On Aug. 27 at noon, imperiled camp residents all over Port-au-Prince will beat pots and pans, or “bat teneb,” inside their camps.

“We have found that in several camps the local mayor’s office hires thugs to pressure and threaten the victims,” said Sanon Reyneld of FRAKKA (The Reflection and Action Force for Housing), “Meanwhile, big landowners have used corrupt justices of the peace as well as bribed policemen to force people empty-handed onto the streets.”

The UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) claimed in a Jul. 29 press conference that camps are growing, not disappearing. But Mark Schuller, an Anthropology professor of CUNY’s York College, has found that 20% of camps officially registered by the International Organization on Migration (IOM) since May have disappeared.

In fact, both findings are true as smaller “phantom” camps dissolve to become integrated into larger or planned camps, which sometimes offer more infrastructure.

This has led some UN and NGO workers to suggest that camps are growing because they are desirable places to live, a logic that carries a strong whiff of foreign-humanitarians-fear-being-outsmarted-by-cunning-Haitians. The foreign aid workers make statements like “we’re here to do disaster relief, not lift the Haitians out of poverty,” or “people are better off now than they were before the earthquake,” or “people are faking” their need for aid, or “people are renting out their intact houses at thrice the price” in order to freeload off humanitarian aid in camps. The UN and NGOs feel that they must not make camps desirable places to live for fear that IDPs won’t want to return home.

“What home?” asked one exasperated camp resident. “We’re being evicted from trash houses onto the street.”

Conditions in most Haitian camps do not even begin to meet the SPHERE standards (The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response), or the minimum standards for food and nutrition security in line with the principles and rights embodied in the Humanitarian Charter. According to Schuller’s findings, 30% don’t have water and the average number of people per toilet is 500. In cases of forced expulsions, these same NGOs, as well as IOM, are collaborating with property owners by withholding aid, without any instruction from the state or knowledge of Haitian law.

While Article 36 of the 1987 Constitution recognize the right to private property, Article 22 declares: “The state recognizes the right of all citizens to decent housing, education, food and social security.” According to Mario Joseph, “the state has the right to declare private property for social and housing purposes under the 8th of July 1921 Decree on the Recognition of Public Interest.” Furthermore, “the failure of the state to protect IDP Haitian citizens in this post-disaster climate constitutes a grave human rights violation,” Joseph said. “The state must immediately verify all land ownership claims and be transparent about what is private and what is state-owned. Pending this, it must halt forced expulsions and negotiate with so-called land owners.” However, there is still no transparency and forced expulsions continue, “discriminating against the poorest and most vulnerable” Joseph said. While not recognizing the legitimacy of Haiti’s State of Emergency Law, passed on Apr. 15, Joseph noted that it contains legal mechanisms needed to expropriate private property by eminent domain.

Haiti’s ruling class instituted a semi-feudal land system shortly after the Republic’s birth in 1804, putting a stranglehold on land distribution. Founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared all land to be commons in 1803, but his verification of deeds and confiscation of estates illegally occupied by powerful elites got him assassinated in 1806. As Peter Hallward writes in his book Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, “Around 75% of the arable land is held by just 5% of is inhabitants. A tiny transnational clique of wealthy and well connected families continues to dominate the economy, the media, the universities and professions, along with what remains of the state.”

“Haiti is the most privatized country in the world,” added long-time political activist, Patrick Elie. “Almost everything that could be privatized here has been. The surest was to get rich quick was to think of an area that should be state run, and privatize it. The only reason prisons have not been privatized is because it is not yet profitable for them to do so.”

Since the Duvalier dictatorship fell in 1986, most of Haiti’s state enterprises have been privatized including the state telephone company, the flour, cement and essential oils plants, the port authority and airport, as well as public schools, hospitals, and two state banks.

“One must never say things can’t get worse, that the country can’t sink lower” Elie warned.

NGOs and charities, of which Haiti already had the highest number per capita in the world before the earthquake, undertake short-term projects with little or no coordination with the government or between each other, and little accountability to or input from civil society. Generously funded foreign agencies undermine the work of Haitians, diverting funds away from the government, atrophying its most basic ability to function like a State.”The government is currently on an artificial life support system by the name of Provisional Electoral Council and the Interim Commission on Reconstruction of Haiti (CIRH),” said Mario Joseph. “It cannot be revived, it must be unplugged and reborn.” Like revolutions, catastrophes can sometimes present a unique opportunity to reorganize social relations and balance class inequalities.

The land rights confusion caused by the earthquake could go two ways. There could be a disaster-catalyzed exacerbation of primitive accumulation, as was the case in New Orleans, and as is already being seen in neighborhoods of downtown Port-au-Prince, where Digicel is coveting and purchasing property by shady means. “The downtown area is going to be the centre piece of future Port-au-Prince,” said Elie. “The government should halt any transaction by decree and protect what is left of the city’s heritage from this speculative looting.”

On the other hand, “this could be the opportunity Haiti needs to finally force the government to be transparent about land ownership,” said Joseph. “There is no other way forward.”

Elie adds that “the burden of proof must be on those who claim ownership to land; they must be forced to prove when and for how much they purchased the property and how much they have been paying in taxes since. This should form the basis for any government compensation for land appropriated under Eminent Domain.”

Many government records were destroyed when ministries collapsed in the earthquake, and files that have been retrieved are out of order. But according to Joseph, this poses no legal obstacle to land reform. “People who go on about the insurmountable technical legal problems are poisoning our spirits,” he said. “The law is perfectly clear. There is a problem of political will and a problem of exclusion. The poor have been excluded from their land for years, and are now excluded from the process determining their rights to lodgings.”

Donor countries and aid agencies must respect Haitian and international law or they will exacerbate the crisis. “Helping to strengthen Haiti’s judicial system so that it delivers justice to the poor must be one of the top priorities of reconstruction,” said Nicole Phillips of the IJDH. “Otherwise, Haiti’s functional lawlessness will undermine foreign aid programs and any attempts to protect human rights.”

Call to action:

BAI/IJDH are calling for a moratorium on forced evictions, an independent monitoring system and genuine community consultation. The petition can be found here: http://www.change.org/haitijustice/petitions/view/stop_forced_evictions_of_haitis_earthquake_victims


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