Global Voices in Haiti: Litmus Test

Global Voices has sent a two-person team to Port-au-Prince in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, to help support citizen media activity. Georgia Popplewell and Alice Backer are also contributing firsthand reporting to our coverage of recovery efforts. Find out more about their assignment here.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, 27 January, 2010

We went into downtown Port-au-Prince again yesterday. We'd heard via Twitter that food was being distributed near the National Palace, followed by reports, from Carel Pedre and Karl Jean-Jeune, of UN security “spraying gas” and “throwing tear gas”. Examining the footage posted to YouTube by Carel Pedre, my Global Voices colleague Marc Herman concluded that the substance being sprayed looked more like pepper spray. The pepper spray story was corroborated by reports from the UK Times Online and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, though Al Jazeera English maintains the tear gas line.

Food distribution line in Port-au-Prince

Whether pepper-spray or tear-gas-related, the scuffle has died down by the time we arrive in town. The line is long, but people are waiting patiently. We ask a bystander what’s being distributed. He says he thinks it’s rice. I ask Roosevelt, our driver, to circle the Champs de Mars for a bit, so we can see what’s going on in the vast tent city that now occupies most of the city’s central square.

Unsurprisingly, the regular rhythm of Haitian life seems to have established itself in the maze of makeshift shelters clustered among plinths bearing statues of Toussaint, Pétion and company, the country’s founding fathers. Women are cooking, bathing babies and doing laundry in basins along the perimeter wall, bathing themselves at the roadside. Children are playing football, vendors have set up stalls on the periphery. Near the National Palace, people have gathered to watch a safe being lowered from a government building. Less formal salvage and scavenging operations are taking place in other parts of the city as well. We pass groups of men shoveling rubble, people picking among the ruins of buildings for things they can reuse. Among the detritus, Port-au-Prince is slowly coming back to life.

Around the tent city on the Champs the Mars, life resumes its normal rhythm

Last night a friend who's come here to work with a Canadian NGO wondered how many of the “displaced” were people whose homes were intact but who were simply afraid of sleeping indoors. Yesterday the Haitian government, such as it is, issued a bulletin summarising the impact of the earthquake. On her blog, Anne-Christine D'Adesky posts translations of some of the highlights:

“Around 112,000 dead, 195,000 wounded, 1 million homeless, half the houses destroyed in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Leogane; at least 23 private hospitals collapsed.

“The government yesterday announced the creation of 2 camps for displaced persons in Port-au-Prince: one on the road to Tabarre, the other at Croix des Bouquets. Another site has been identified in the zone of Leogane.

“Only qualified engineers can determine if a damaged building is sound enough to be recoccupied. The rule to follow until an engineer has evaluated a property is: if the building doesn't look sound, it isn't.

“Today, we estimate the capacity of food distribution varies between 200,000 and 300,000 rations a day. This means that, in Port-au-Prince and its surroundings alone, over 800,000 people will not be reached. This is the major challenge.

“The government is opposed to precipitous adoptions and uncontrolled departures from Haiti of vulnerable or orphaned children and is concerned about the risk of trafficking.

“NGOs engaged in humanitarian or food aid are encouraged to work with the UN system that has been established.”

It’s hard to know what’s really happening on the ground. Port-au-Prince is a vast and unfamiliar city, and my primary goal in being here is not to report on the situation. We’re staying in Pétionville, away from the fray. As the tear gas story above demonstrates, it’s difficult to verify information. You try to get around as much as you can, but in the end you’ll see only a tiny fraction of the whole, and perhaps understand or read accurately only a fraction of that. But the overriding story is about the distribution of aid: how badly it’s going, how supplies are failing to get to those who need it, and also how difficult the whole exercise is. I'm pretty sure that one is true.

On the edge of the tent city near the National Palace I talk to a pair of middle-aged women from Bel Air. They say they haven’t received any food supplies. I ask them if they plan on leaving the city for the countryside. The older one says no. I ask why. She says it’s because her father is dead — she has no family left “en province“.

Earthquake damage in Carrefour

We drive out west to the bedroom district of Carrefour, where 40 to 50% of the buildings are said to have sustained damage. Along the main roads at least, the impact of the quake doesn’t seem as dramatic as in central Port-au-Prince, as the buildings are lower and not as densely clustered. Tent cities have sprung up on the median strips and there are mounds of burning garbage along the roadside. But Carrefour didn’t need an earthquake to render conditions appalling. Still, the community is going about its business, obviously accustomed to the general squalor and the grey slurry of macerated garbage underfoot. We pass three money transfer agencies with long lines in front, a sign that remittances, which by some estimates account for over half of the country's national income, are flowing back into Haiti once more.

Tent city on the median strip on the Carrefour main road

Crowd gathered at a money transfer agency in Carrefour, awaiting remittances from abroad

We head back into central Port-au-Prince to engage with a different side of Haiti at the storied Hotel Oloffson in Bois Verna, where it seems like half of the Corbett Haiti mailing list is lunching. We chat briefly with hotel proprietor Richard Morse (@RAMhaiti), who now has 12,065 followers on Twitter and appears on 638 Twitter lists, all as a result of the earthquake. Also there: Anne-Christine D’Adesky, who’s been blogging and posting to the Corbett list consistently since the earthquake hit, and who says that Haiti is the litmus test for whether the lessons learned in other recent humanitarian situations have really been learned; New Yorker Tequila Minsky, just in from taking photos in a nearby neighbourhood; writer Amy Wilentz, who’s blogging for TIME magazine; Haitian photographer Daniel Morel, who corrects my camera-holding techniques; and Leah Gordon, who offers to take us to Portail Léogane to visit the sculptors of the Grand Rue.

But that's the subject of another post. Over and out.

Originally posted at Caribbean Free Radio.

Global Voices’ work in Haiti is supported by our general support donors and by a humanitarian information grant from Internews. Please visit the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake page for more coverage.

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