Haitians: 'To those in power, we are not considered victims'

The slums of Cité Soleil were destroyed, yet aid is almost non-existent

By Guy Adams
Thursday 21 January 2010 01:00

The local delicacy in Cité Soleil is known as "mud-cake". It's a sort of biscuit, made from clay, salt and a little bit of cooking oil, then baked dry in the sun. "They fill you up," a local explained, "but they are no good for your health. I guarantee: if you eat too many of them, you will be sick."

Right now, mud-cakes are selling like, well hot cakes, on the cobbled streets of the Cité, a shanty town sandwiched between Haiti's airport and the Caribbean. Around 300,000 people live here, in the nation's most impoverished slum. Before last week, they had almost nothing; now they've even less. Cakes made from clay are the only food they can afford.

International aid may at be last trickling, painfully slowly, into the rubble-strewn centre of Port-au-Prince. But in this filthy shanty town half an hour's drive away, where families sleep five or six to small shacks, next to none has arrived. And the poorest of the poor complain that their plight is being forgotten.

"We don't have doctors, we don't have food, we don't have water," said Louis Jean Jaris, a 29-year-old resident. "The aid comes to Haiti, but it goes elsewhere. In Cité Soleil we are all victims, just like everyone else, but compared to the rest of the country, we are a low priority. To the people in power, we are not considered to be victims."

Black Hawk helicopters were thundering overhead yesterday, taking aid from the airport to desperate survivors. But the shanty town does not have an official food aid distribution post, and only one small water truck was to be found on the streets, surrounded by a fractious crowd.

Small amounts of supplies are of course available, to those who have money. But Cité Soleil's biggest employer, a garment factory, has yet to reopen, and most locals are instead forced to walk miles into central Port-au-Prince in search of handouts. So far, the dysfunctional international aid effort means they are very lucky to find any.

Medical supplies are also virtually non-existent. On one street, a middle-aged woman called Bienaimé Marie Duly showed me her left arm, which was completely covered, from the bicep down, in a glistening purple sore. It was covered in flies and starting to turn septic. "I was cooking when the earthquake happened, and boiling water covered me," she explains. "I was totally scalded. I walked to the doctor, but he said there was nothing they could do, because they had no medicine left."

At a nearby field hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the few aid agencies to so far brave the Cité, staff said that supplies had almost run dry. "I have never seen anything like this," said Loris de Filippi, emergency coordinator for the MSF's Choscal Hospital there.

The main reason most aid workers are afraid to enter Cité Soleil is crime. For years, the slum has been run by gangs. During the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, it became a virtual war zone. Though things have improved in recent years – after police raids led to the arrest of powerful gang leaders – Westerners are advised not to set foot in the neighbourhood.

Since last Tuesday's quake, the security situation has been compounded by fears prompted by the collapse of Haiti's biggest prison, which held around 3,000 inmates, including some of the Cité's gang leaders. After reportedly setting prison records on fire and relieving guards of automatic weapons, many headed back to their old stamping ground.

Local residents claim that three people died and several women were raped in a small-scale turf war that immediately ensued between gun-toting gangsters nicknamed "Belony" and "Bled".

On Sunday the Associated Press reported that a man stole a motorcyclist's bag of rice with a .38-calibre pistol, in broad daylight. Locals decided to take matters into their own hands.

"Before the earthquake came, we had a stable situation, so after it happened, the population didn't want to support the return of the gangs," explains Caries Rubens, a Cité resident. "We've got enough problems with the disaster without also having to fight hooligans. So we sat down as a community and had a meeting where we decided that we wouldn't let them come back."

Mr Rubens said that returning gang-members were approached by large crowds, and told to get out of the shanty-town. At least one was lynched. "His name was Blade. Before he went to prison, he caused big problems for the people. He used to kidnap and murder them with a knife. So the people got revenge. They killed him and chopped him up with machetes."

Hundreds of UN troops, mostly from Brazil, are now in Cité Soleil, helping residents to keep the peace. Occasional police patrols are also visible on the rubbish-strewn streets, although one officer told me yesterday that they have trouble arresting people since there is no prison to put them in.

But the main source of tensionwas a 6.1 aftershock that shook Port-au-Prince at dawn yesterday, sending panicked residents running onto the streets and shaking even the biggest buildings. It was difficult to tell if fresh damage occurred, since so much of the city is already rubble. But no significant numbers of deaths were reported.

Shopkeepers, who occupy one-storey concrete and corrugated iron shacks, were taking extra care of their stock, since looting remains an ongoing concern. Wilco Sanon was handing out toothpaste, sweets, biscuits and mud-cakes through iron bars, in order to protect himself against armed robbers.

"People here live in extreme poverty and sometimes they have to rob to survive, so even before the earthquake I had to be careful," he said. "Now the price of everything has increased, even the things I buy in. I must look after my stock." His weary shrug betrayed an unfortunate truth: in a shanty town built on extreme poverty, many young children have little option but the gangs. When UN troops withdraw, and normality eventually returns to Port-au-Prince, fixing Cité Soleil could take a generation.

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