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Migration & Refugees

In One Haitian Camp, Life Offers Hardship and Little Hope

A family inside its home in Cannon Camp in Haiti. Credit: Susan Robens-Brannon/IPS

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jun 21 2012 (IPS) - In the remote, dusty and barren area of northern Port-au-Prince, Cannon Camp houses nearly 6,000 displaced Haitians in tiny and cramped spaces. Nestled among the smattering of tents is the home of a 50-something-year-old mother of 12.

The mother, who asked that her name not be used, was moved to the camp after she lost her small home after the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. Her new home is a battered one-room tent extended by a partial tarp to make a second room.

Inside are two broken chairs, some blankets, a yellow laundry basket and a small charcoal grill. The hard-packed floor has been neatly swept thousands of times in the attempt to keep away dust so that the mother and her family can sleep and eat on the ground.

After the earthquake in 2010, international donations allowed the Haitian government to help displaced Haitians, with United Nations (U.N.) countries pledging a total of 9.9 billion dollars over three years. The money was to be deposited into the World Bank and distributed by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC).

But after a few years, the flow of money stopped. Unlike other camps, Cannon Camp is on government land, so navigating bureaucratic processes renders negotiating and providing assistance even more difficult for non-profit organisations. Many Haitians have been left to their own devices, forced to cobble together a hardscrabble existence under brutal conditions.

Life in Cannon Camp

Cannon camp has no running water and no electricity. Rarely cleaned, the camp’s toilets are small and cramped and dirty. The roads are terrible and there is no place to store food.

The mother’s 22-year-old daughter is propped up against a wall of the tent, sitting on the ground on a cotton sheet, in pain during her last trimester of pregnancy with twins. She already has two other children. Her three-year-old daughter sits at her feet with a runny nose and semi-watery eyes.

Another of the mother’s daughters, this one younger, stands against a pole inside the tent, holding a crying one-year-old. Sitting on the floor near the laundry basket is another daughter trying to find the energy to fold the clean clothes that are tucked inside.

Not all of the mother’s children live in the same tent. The pregnant daughter has her own tent nearby. The mother informs me that her pregnant daughter, who is unmarried, is going to have the baby at the camp because the hospital will not take her until her water is broken.

“The camp is owned by the Haitian government,” she begins when asked whether the camp had any medical assistance. “At first they supplied water, medical assistance, food, and schools.  However, today these services have stopped and we do not receive any assistance of any kind. All the non-profits left too; we are left on our own without any help.”

As a result, the families in the camp, living in an utterly impoverished environment, must spend their own resources on critical supplies and services. It costs about 200 Haitian dollars to have a baby in the hospital, the mother tells IPS. “I don’t have the money.”

“I have had 12 children,” she adds. “I know what to expect.”

If the daughter had the money to go to the hospital, it would be difficult for her to get there while in labor, after her water breaks. The camp’s tents seem to have been arranged randomly, without any consideration for the terrain, and her tent is located near the top of a hill, about a kilometer away from the camp’s exist. The way down is rugged, torturous either by car or on foot in the hot and dusty climate.

The makeshift roads are laden with potholes of all sizes. And even if the daughter could exit the camp and can reach the asphalt road, the hospital is located near the centre of Port-au-Prince. It could take her hours to get to the hospital, depending on traffic and the time of day.

Ultimately, there seem to be only two possible solutions. One is to come up with the money so the daughter can go to the hospital early. The other is to give birth in the tent.

Water shortages

Water is not easily accessible in the camp, as residents must walk down the same treacherous road to the outside of the walled camp to purchase non-potable water. The return journey is even more difficult with a five-gallon bucket of water.

Fortunately, the government has done a good job educating Haitians about water safety. It has become routine for them to add chlorine tablets to the water to make it potable, and it is hoped that the number of deaths from cholera will be greatly reduced this rainy season in July.

One non-profit installed a container that would hold drinking water, but it was only filled one time. “They never came back to refill it,” says the mother. Filling it costs 300 U.S. dollars, and given the number of people living in the camp, the water does not last long. In many camps, violence often breaks out over control of this critical resource.

A few residents have learnt to be economically creative, converting their tents into shops to resell water at a higher price. Others are selling rice, beans and other items to help earn an income and to make it easier for residents to gather items without having to travel outside of the camp.

In this camp, everyone must find his or her own creative way to earn an income. Many of the residents sit at the base of the camp and sell various items on the streets.

Asked what she thought the camp needed most, the mother replies, “I want a new home,” then pauses and adds, “How can I say what is the most important? Everything is important – just look around. All of us are going to be here for a very long time…maybe forever.”

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