Haiti: One year on from quake

As around a million and a half people camp out in squalor, rape is a daily occurrence, food is stolen, and most of the rubble from 330,000 wrecked homes is still piled high

Nina Lakhani
Sunday 09 January 2011 01:00

On Tuesday 12 January 2010, Haiti was jolted and broken by an earthquake which killed 230,000 people. Today, despite pledges of billions and the presence of thousands of aid groups and missions, its people's plight is a festering global scandal.

Twelve months after the quake wrecked 350,000 homes and left at least 1.5 million people homeless, 87 per cent of the survivors are still living in squalid, dangerous tented camps. Dozens of rapes are committed every day, and so much rubble is uncleared that what remains on the ground, clogging any serious reconstruction, would fill trucks which would stretch halfway round the world. All this in a country which, staggeringly, hosts tourists from cruise ships. It can supply piña coladas, but not hope to its own people.

A new report published by ActionAid, to be released tomorrow, says: "In the capital Port-au-Prince, between 1.3 and 1.7 million people continue to live in increasingly squalid tents with little hope of moving to transitional shelters. Less than 30,000 of those displaced have found permanent homes. There is no strategic plan for shelter, land disputes are widespread, and tons of rubble needs clearing, much of which is thought to contain human remains." It added that "until the government frees up the land needed, we are forced to spend donations on replacing tents and other piecemeal measures designed to help people get by in overcrowded camps".

The two great obstacles to getting people into permanent shelter, never mind full reconstruction, are the vast quantities of rubble and land disputes. The quake created 20 million cubic metres of rubble, and less than 5 per cent of this has been cleared. International agencies, which have the money and equipment to start building more permanent housing, also face huge problems trying to obtain permission from landowners because more than 70 per cent of campsites are on disputed land.

The country's dysfunctional land registry has completely fallen apart since the earthquake, and forged documents, lost deeds, and multiple claimants are commonplace. Even the state does not know how much land it owns, which helps to explain why only 30,000 of the 2.5 million displaced people have found permanent shelter. To put this into context, Indonesia took five years to replace 139,000 houses destroyed in Aceh by the 2004 tsunami. In the developed world, six years after the 1995 earthquake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe, people were still living in temporary accommodation because property claims had not been settled.

The government has used emergency powers to appropriate private land for government buildings, shops and offices, but so far not for housing. Haiti was a corruptly dysfunctional state before the quake, and 28 out of 29 ministries and their records were destroyed in the disaster. But aid agencies cite a frustrating lack of government urgency. In an attempt to navigate Haiti's corruption record, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, led by Bill Clinton and the Haitian President, was established to approve and supervise all major projects in line with goals identified in the government's recovery plan. But the plan is narrow, out of date and contains no information about budgets and expected completion dates, according to ActionAid.

The system of delivering money has been painfully slow, lacks transparency and is inaccessible for ordinary Haitians. Housing, land issues and preventing violence against women are not priorities in the recovery plan. In addition, UN figures show that only half of the $2.1bn pledged for Haiti's reconstruction has been disbursed; money from France, the US and Saudi Arabia is only just beginning to trickle in.

Jane Moyo, the lead author of the ActionAid report, said: "There is an overwhelming sense that Haiti is drifting. People are surviving but survival is not enough; we also have to rebuild. There is no sense of urgency among the Haitian leadership and there is little progress on reconstruction with hundreds of thousands of people stuck in limbo. Haiti feels rudderless, beset by ad hocery because there is no clear leadership. There was an opportunity after the earthquake to make a real difference but it is slipping away. Unless something is done about housing and jobs, Haiti will sink lower. A city overwhelmed by thousands of encampments, run by gangs and landlords is a real possibility and that is the way to a failed state."

Already the poorest country in the western hemisphere before the earthquake, Haiti has over the past year fallen five points in the world's poverty league from 140 to 145 out of 182. Ms Moyo said: "Before the earthquake, 80 per cent of basic services were supplied by NGOs. There were few jobs before; there are none now. It feels like the government has given up and is waiting for the international community to do their jobs. This really is a broken a society."

Over the past year, international agencies have distributed about 100,000 tents and 750,000 tarpaulin kits that last for only 12 to 18 months. Replacing the tents will cost as much as $50m, which would otherwise pay for 20,000 semi-permanent homes.

Haiti has no history of social housing, and even before the earthquake, relatively few people in the capital could afford private rents, instead living in overcrowded slums, shanty towns and squats. The earthquake destroyed up to 350,000 homes around the capital, and private landlords have increased rents by about 50 per cent in many areas.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed an independent panel last week to investigate the source of a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 3,300 people. International medical efforts stopped the spread from surging through the camps. But the UN's reputation has taken a hit as many blame the outbreak on its Nepalese peacekeepers. And women and girls have also felt abandoned by the peacekeepers as sexual violence has exploded, particularly in the camps where reports of gang rapes by armed young men are common.

Rapes are now endemic. And, in this broken state, the perpetrators are almost guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Armed gangs are reported to be running a number of the tent cities around the capital, terrorising their inhabitants and stealing food, according to a new Amnesty International report. And the country is now bracing itself for more unrest as the second round of presidential elections has been delayed until next month.

Even before the earthquake, a survey found more than 50 reported cases of rape every day in the capital. Poor security, crowded accommodation, no lighting and shared toilet facilities in the camps has led to "double the problem", according to Yolande Bazelais, the president of grass-roots organisation Favilek, a Creole acronym for Women Victims Rise. Favilek, set up by women who were raped during the 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, helps victims get to hospital and file a report to police but many are too frightened; others cannot afford the bus fare.

The Amnesty International report, Aftershocks: Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence in Haiti's Camps, published last week, found thousands of women terrified to go to sleep because tents offer not even basic protection. They interviewed 50 women and girls who were victims of at least one attack, including one family in which the grandmother, mother and eldest daughter had all been raped. The delegation also witnessed gangs running camps, overseeing deliveries of food which was then stolen in the absence of any police or international security forces.

Javier Zuniga, the head of Amnesty International's delegation to Haiti, said: "With more than one million people living in tent cities, but only three of these cities meeting international standards for safety, space and basic needs, they absolutely provided the conditions for rape to flourish."

Daniela's story

Her home was destroyed in the earthquake but, since she owned the small plot of land where she is now living and retained the deeds, ActionAid was able to build a model transitional shelter. "When we were living under corrugated iron sheets I had skin problems and was constantly feeling ill," she said. "Since moving in, my health has improved and I'm no longer sick."

Josephmona's story

Josephmona is living in a tent. None of her children, aged 13, nine and six, goes to school. "We're desperate. People say there is land outside the city but it's not just about homes. It's about jobs as well. The government doesn't seem interested. If we wait for them to act we will die before it happens. Only ActionAid came along. No one should live like this."

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