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A day in the life of a Haiti tent city

The Daihatsu camp in Port-au-Prince arose on its own and still awaits adequate aid. 'You have to have faith,' one resident says.

January 27, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg
  • A Haitian boy flies a kite above the Daihatsu camp, which is named for an adjoining car dealership. The tent city marches up a rocky, snake-infested hillside not far from the Port-au-Prince airport.
A Haitian boy flies a kite above the Daihatsu camp, which is named for an adjoining… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Morning arrives with the melody of the Haitian streets.

A rooster crows, and two street preachers stand near the gates of a new tent city. They are both women, both wearing black kerchiefs over their hair. One shouts hoarsely into a bullhorn while the other sings sweetly from a "singing bible," a book of hymns. The sounds clash and blend, grate and harmonize, and the result is, incongruously, achingly beautiful, a sort of Haitian hip-hop gospel.

It is 6:30 a.m., and the refugee settlement known as the Daihatsu camp is coming to life for another day.

"God is looking for you!" the first preacher shouts in Creole. "God needs you! . . . Give him your life! Give him your life! Because he lets you borrow it, he can take it whenever he wants!"

The other woman sings: "The world is not easy. The world is not easy. But God is with us, God gives us grace, for he is looking at you."

About 20 yards away, a group of teenage girls is in line at the one portable toilet in this camp of about 8,000 refugees from the Jan. 12 earthquake, one of about 500 such tent cities that have sprung up around the Haitian capital.

"You have to listen to them," one is telling another, nodding toward the street preachers. "You have to have faith."

That might seem hard, two weeks after the magnitude 7.0 quake shattered the world of everyone in this camp and killed at least 150,000 of their fellow Haitians, including many close relatives and friends. Life is not easy here at the Daihatsu camp, which is named for an adjoining car dealership and marches up a rocky, snake-infested hillside not far from the Port-au-Prince airport.

With the sun rising, people stir in their makeshift tents, most of them patched together out of spare linens and plastic sheets.

Louis Enord, 54, washes his face in a small plastic washbasin while still lying in bed, building up a good lather before rinsing vigorously.

"Life is not good here, but this is the only refugee camp we could come to," says Enord, whose concrete block house in the Simond neighborhood collapsed. "We have no choice. We have to live here."

Enord is an affable man who broke his leg in a car accident before the quake, costing him his job as an electric company meter reader, work he can't perform on crutches. His new dwelling is about as good as it gets here: a waterproof tarp spread over a structure made of random-length sticks. It measures about 6 feet by 8 feet, and houses his family of four -- a much better ratio of people to space than many families have.

Enord is at the very bottom of the hill. Looking up, the eye takes in a patchwork of homemade tents that are so close together as to appear to be an unbroken quilt, lightly billowing in hues of whites and blues and reds and yellows.

Since the earthquake, an estimated 500,000 people have moved into such camps in and around Port-au-Prince. About 50 of the sites were designated by the government after the disaster, but the vast majority are like Daihatsu -- spontaneously created by individuals who had no place else to stay but the streets.

In the case of Daihatsu, people noticed the empty land and began pitching their homemade shelters the night of the earthquake. There were about 500 people that first night, scattered haphazardly around the site, according to Jude Emile, a volunteer firefighter who came here after his house collapsed.

Emile helped organize some young men into a leadership committee, and has become the de facto mayor of the camp, helping to organize it into some semblance of order: creating security and cleanup details and arranging the tents into rows, more or less, with passable walkways. Volunteer security guards patrol until 3 a.m.

The organizers have divided the field into five sectors, each with its own leadership, and have even given the tents street addresses. One sector, which sits next to a government bus yard, is known as Barack Obamaville because, people say, the U.S. government provided money for the buses.

Roberty Mirese, 42, is a resident of Obamaville. She sweeps the dirt around her tent and then, for good measure, sweeps around her neighbors' tents. She is here with two of her five children; she sent the three younger ones to stay with a relative in the countryside.

The floor of her tent is swept as clean as a dirt floor can be.

"It's not bad," she says. "I'm lying in the dirt, the mosquitoes bite us all night, but we have no choice. We have to be here."

Hers is a common attitude in a country where people have little in the best of times, and don't expect much. Still, as the days have stretched on, a new mood of anxiety, even anger, has begun to slip into the tent city. Although it is one of the larger ones in Port-au-Prince, it has seen relatively little in the way of international assistance.

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