Haitians who fled capital strain impoverished towns in countryside

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 15, 2010

LASCAHOBAS, HAITI -- The earthquake that struck Haiti's capital city has also jarred the impoverished countryside, sending 600,000 people into the provinces -- where locals are now overwhelmed with the task of feeding and sheltering desperate newcomers.

Haitian and international aid officials describe the migration as one of the largest and most wrenching in the hemisphere, as internally displaced people stream out of Port-au-Prince and head to struggling provincial towns in the aftermath of the earthquake like civilians fleeing war zones in places such as Rwanda, Kosovo and the Swat Valley in Pakistan.

"They are everywhere. They are in the town, and they are sleeping in the fields," said Gerald Joseph, mayor of Lascahobas, a farming and trading town about three hours north of the capital. "Our schools are beyond full now. Our hospital is full. All our houses are full of people. We don't have an empty house. Where four people were sleeping before, there are now 14."

The mayor said that by his census, his town of 60,000 had grown by 10,000 refugees from Port-au-Prince since the January quake. They leave the city with a bag of rice or a suitcase of clothes and arrive here with no jobs and little money, the mayor said. "They are poor people overwhelming poor people," he said.

Officials in the countryside say that no help has come from the bankrupt and enfeebled Haitian government and that international aid has arrived in a frustrating trickle. In Lascahobas, the charity group World Vision fed 500 people one time, the mayor said. Nepalese troops working for the United Nations also came once to feed about 800 people.

Haitian officials preparing to seek billions of dollars in aid from foreign donors and U.S. taxpayers at the United Nations at the end of the month stress that their plan for a better Haiti includes a promise to decentralize power.

Eduardo Almeida, head of the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti, said the plans should include massive investments in infrastructure in the provinces -- in schools, universities, ports, tourism, manufacturing and especially agriculture.

"Haiti is a farming culture that cannot feed itself, and that must change," Almeida said. As an example, development officials and aid advisers repeat that Haiti is so poor, and its agriculture so ravaged, that it must import a million eggs a day from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

During years of political chaos, coups and soaring poverty, Haiti and its partners such as the World Bank and U.N. agencies have done little to bolster the countryside, where local governments are broke and mostly powerless to develop on their own. Before the earthquake, nearly a third of Haiti's roughly 10 million residents lived in Port-au-Prince.

"Look!" said the Rev. Raphael Bernadin Desras, the priest at the St. Gabriel Catholic church in the center of the town, as he swung open the door to a storeroom. A dozen bags of rice and some sacks of beans remained in a larder that once was full. "I have enough left for the kids in my school. But everyone else? Good luck."

Desras said "the biggest problem is that all the aid stays in Port-au-Prince." People from the city, he said, "are our sisters and brothers, so of course we will help them." But he complained about the dominance of the capital in all matters -- government, trade, industry, education, aid.

"They have abandoned the countryside for the last 50 years," the priest said, and he asked whether a visitor had seen houses along the road from the city. "Stick and mud," he said.

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