Despite 'all that money,' more than 1 million Haitians remain displaced by January earthquake

By Edward Cody
Sunday, August 22, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Immacula Pierre had a question. Why, she wanted to know, are she and 50,000 other homeless Haitians still living in a squalid tent city on the Champ de Mars, an esplanade in the heart of Port-au-Prince just across the street from the destroyed National Palace.

"I'm still here," she said, gesturing at a tattered tarp-and-plywood shelter that covered a soaked bed on ground left muddy by an overnight downpour. "I wake up every morning here, and I just stare up at the sky. Nothing else."

More than seven months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians -- 15 percent of the population -- are still living in tents or under leaky tarps, unable to protect themselves from the Caribbean's relentless summer rains, even though foreign governments and charities have pledged billions of dollars for relief and reconstruction.

The international spotlight returned to Haiti this month when hip-hop star Wyclef Jean announced his plan to run for president in November. His image as an outsider, born in Haiti but a longtime resident of New Jersey, brought a wave of optimism, especially among younger Haitians.

But Jean's disqualification Friday on the grounds that he did not meet the residency requirement left many worried that interest in Haiti will again fade despite the country's tremendous unmet needs.

The homeless are scattered in more than a thousand fetid camps; the Champ de Mars is far from being the worst. One tent city welcomes visitors as soon as they drive out of Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport. Residents live jammed together -- sleeping, eating, washing and waiting -- a situation that has promoted a surge in theft and rape, but also in self-help and solidarity.

None of the camps is as emblematic of the enduring crisis as the Champ de Mars. Flanked by ministries, barracks and the iconic eggshell-white palace, the site was Haiti's equivalent of the Mall. But since the earth shook, the palace droops in evocative ruins with no sign of repairs as the months tick by. The fountains have turned into sickly green pools, still clogged with plastic bottles that no one seems able to haul off. The once-proud historical monuments look down on a tight patchwork of rickety shelters and, inside, an increasingly resentful mass of idle people with nowhere to go.

"All that money, we have felt nothing from it," complained Jean-Michel Olophene, a civil engineer who has been a Champ de Mars resident since the quake and recently was hired by the government as a liaison.

Conscious of the symbolism, President René Préval has made it a personal mission to get the homeless off the Champ de Mars. According to aides, he meets several times a week with a group assigned to find a solution. But every time they propose something, according to a participant, he responds that he does not have the money to make it work.

As a result, the Champ de Mars has become another symbol: that of the Haitian government's inability to muster the leadership to inspire hope and promote recovery. Despite his commitment to moving people off the Champ de Mars, for instance, and even though he works in refurbished offices on the National Palace grounds 200 yards away, Préval has yet to walk over and talk with the homeless residents, Olophene said.

"President Préval's actions do not suggest a departure from the self-destructive political behavior that has kept Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, complained in a letter last month accompanying a committee report that found a disturbing lag in recovery work.

The leading Haitian newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, agreed. "Nothing is easy, granted," it said in a front-page editorial this week. "But things could be moving faster. Everybody agrees with that. Everybody."

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