a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Tue, 16 Feb 2010

[23:47] God's Own Forsaken Country

Our flat in Port-au-Prince -- Pétionville, actually -- two flats, actually -- well, our two flats in Pétionville are right next to the (former?) Romanian consulate, right across from the Brazilian consulate, and just down the street from Place Boyer, a very nice green bit of park; or it was, at least, right up until last month, when it became an IDP camp.

An Internally Displaced Persons camp is identical to a refugee camp, except that the accepted international definition of "refugee" involves someone who has fled across an international border to wind up at their camp. Since the Pótoprinsiens who are living in the park down the street are actually from this neighborhood, the nomenclature by which they are regarded is the rather verbose phrase "Internally Displaced Persons"; hence, "IDP camp."

Now, slums outside of the developed West are always an assault on the senses, and the main difference between an IDP camp and a slum, as far as I can make out, is only one of relative age. Slums are crowded, chaotic, noisy, and, above all, they stink. An IDP camp smells just like a slum, and, from what I have seen, slums smell pretty much the same, all round the world: They reek of garbage, rotting garbage, burning garbage, human bodily waste, and, occasionally, strong cooking smells. This particular melange, born of people living in close quarters with little-to-no running water or adequate sanitation, is basically impossible to forget, once experienced. That is what our neighborhood smells like.

To be fair, this is Pétionville, up in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, and so the IDP campers here are fairly well-to-do. They camp in Coleman tents, and have big Christian revival concerts pretty much every night with a drum kit and a PA system and amplified instruments. The camp seems well organized as such things go -- the residents have, for example, kept clear the original walking paths of the park. I have even seen kids in the camp checking their email on laptops.

A month ago, a third of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were severely damaged or destroyed. The problem is, no one knows which of the two-thirds still standing are actually safe, and which are only waiting to cave in or fall over. The Haitian people regard themselves, justly, I think, as being both resilient and resourceful to the extreme, having been put to it by adversity. So these people are all living in the neighborhood park.

Further down the hill, in Delmas, by contrast, the camps run more to tarps and the like. We have even seen camps made basically of nothing beyond corrugated cardboard, tree branches, and string. Since we brought tents, but didn't need them -- quite the contrary -- I gave mine to Erdem within a day of arriving, so that he could relay it to a shelterless family he knew personally.

But the rainy season is going to start soon, and, when it does, everyone will be living in mud, possibly inches deep. There will be flash floods and possibly landslides. There will be mosquitos bearing malaria, and, heaven forfend, one or more of these camps might see a cholera outbreak. Then, in a few more months, to add insult to injury, hurricane season will start.

So I am almost uncomfortable at how comfortable these flats are, two of them, one for me and one for Tom, as a result of the fact that pretty much the entire World Bank's Haiti mission was mired in meetings in snowy DC when we showed up, leaving Erdem, one driver, and two semi-clueless consultants to hold down the fort. In fact, these two flats, in the same building, are the World Bank headquarters in Haiti, because their former office building isn't fit to set foot into any longer. Both apartments are airy, with high ceilings, and glass-paned doors that open on to multiple balconies. The flat downstairs has a broadband Wi-Max connection. The flat upstairs has a breathtaking view, or, would have, if the smog wasn't so bad. And why not? Haiti is the western half of a Caribbean island, with all the scenic magnificence such an appellation implies, from the rugged green mountains, to the rolling, deep-blue sea.

Meanwhile, down below the smog somewhere, lies the capital of a country that was only the second in the New World to throw off its colonial yoke; a country which has been repeatedly invaded by France, Spain, Britain, and the United States; a country that has been crippled by decades of corruption and the failure of the rule of law; a country not more than about 200 miles from the richest in the world, in which our driver earns $18 a day and most of the food in the supermarket is imported; a country that lies both in the path of hurricanes and on a major seismic fault. Few nation-states have been so royally shafted by both history and geography at once.

It is incredible to me how sharp the contrast here is; how Haiti is possessed, simultaneously, incredible natural beauty and of unutterable human misery. I find it very easy to think of this place as "God's Own Forsaken Country".

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Before That
[2010] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2009] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2006] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2005] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2004] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2003] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2002] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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Sep Oct Nov Dec

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