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Tensions rise over Haiti tent camps

Three months after the earthquake, schools and businesses want their land back.

April 29, 2010|Ken Ellingwood

CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, HAITI — Displaced and homeless, the 10,000 earthquake victims crowding the school grounds of the Lycee Jean Jacques are feeling the sting of a new label: unwanted guests.

Administrators and students at the private high school are eager to resume classes after a pause of more than three months.

But they can't as long as the schoolyard, now churned to mud and strewn with trash, remains jammed with thousands of makeshift tents. Residents say they are willing to make way for students, but have no other place to go yet.

Across the Port-au-Prince region, Haitian and international officials are confronting the tricky task of balancing the needs of more than a million homeless with the urge of many others to resume a more normal life months after much of the capital and its outskirts were flattened by the Jan. 12 quake.

The tension is playing out at stadiums, in churchyards and factory lots, almost anywhere there is enough land to pitch a tent. But it appears to be happening most acutely around schools as the government tries to restart classes. Quake victims are camped out on 79 campuses around Port-au-Prince. Most schools in Haiti are run as private businesses.

Complicating matters, officials have been slow to find and acquire parcels of land on which to relocate displaced people, according to many residents and some aid workers.

At Lycee Jean Jacques, the gates entering from the streets are locked. The bare, sprawling grounds are covered with shelters improvised from sheets of plastic and wood sticks. Recent rains have created giant puddles. Mounds of garbage dot the expanse and smoke wafts from cooking pits. The pale walls of the school are painted with a plea: "We are hungry. Give us food."

"People here would like for the kids to go back to school. It's normal," said Jean-Lyonel Lorquet, a leader of one of two blocs into which residents organized themselves since flocking to the school after the quake.

Tensions are rising. Students blocked traffic the other day as part of a demonstration demanding a resumption of classes. Someone set fire this month to a tent and slashed two giant drinking-water receptacles.

"These people will have to move. There is a priority for reopening schools," said Guy-Claude Louis, the municipality's director-general. But, he said, "the question is not simple."

Municipal officials say they located two vacant fields not far away from the Lycee Jean Jacques that can accommodate all 10,000 or so residents camped at the school. But the sites are probably too small to accommodate everyone for more than a few months, and have to be readied first.

On a recent afternoon, 30 men and boys from the camp had gone on their own to one of the fields. They were cutting down plants with machetes and removing trash and rocks with shovels and pitchforks in hopes of a possible move.

As they worked, Casseus Guiteau, the official leader of the larger bloc at the school, with about 8,000 people, stood in the shade of a mango tree and delivered a long and acid rebuke of authorities.

"We can't bring people here under these conditions," he said in a voice deep and scratchy. "If it were up to the people in the school, we would have left. It's because we don't have a government that is working for us."

Frictions are not unique to Croix-des-Bouquets, a town of 300,000 about 45 minutes from Port-au-Prince. There have been numerous reports of threatened evictions by property owners, although U.N. officials monitoring the situation say they have not corroborated allegations that people have been removed by force.

"There's a tension between the right of [displaced quake victims] to be in a safe and secure place and the right of private property and the need to get the country back to normalcy," said Elio Tamburi, acting chief of the human rights office of the U.N. authority here, known by its French acronym, Minustah.

Tamburi's office has asked the government to place a three-week moratorium on evictions, which under Haitian law must be approved by a court. He said U.N. officials assume that such a ban is in place, though the government has made no announcement.

This month, the government opened a vast and well-outfitted encampment not far from Croix-des-Bouquets for about 6,000 people. More than 3,000 people have been moved there from a Port-au-Prince golf course where they faced the risk of being caught in flash floods during the rainy season, which has begun.

The new 18,000-acre site, called Corail Cesselesse, with tidy rows of snow-white tents and plenty of latrines and water spigots, is one of only two large relocation sites established to date. International relief workers say that after the site was designated, they were given only a week to dig toilets in the hard-packed earth and cover the dusty site with gravel and stone.

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