Inside the Shantytowns at Haiti’s Ground Zero

A family in a shantytown in Leogane, Haiti. Photo: Kona Shen.

Madeleine is seventeen years old. Both of her parents died in the earthquake, and she now takes care of her younger brother and sister. As we spoke, she was embarrassed to keep breaking into tears, saying, “I miss my house.” We went around the corner to look at it, where I had visited her many times in previous years. Walls had crumbled, and the ceiling hung down into the empty rooms. The area was dark and silent. Leogane currently lacks all government-supplied electricity, and the only lights at night come from the rare private generator or from aid camps.

Leogane was the epicenter of the January earthquake. With 90% of its buildings destroyed, the town was more affected by the disaster than any other area in the country. Thousands of people died, though the exact death toll is uncertain. Thousands more currently live in flimsy shelters without access to food, water, healthcare, or jobs.

At a local school, the empty classrooms still hold debris and empty benches. The blackboards are frozen in time, all reading ‘January 12, 2010.’ Two months after the disaster, roads are blocked by rubble, and bodies remain trapped under collapsed buildings. One of the only open businesses in town is the private morgue. Banners advertise the morgue’s grand re-opening all over town adding, “sincere regrets.”

Leogane has received far fewer supplies and international aid than Port-au-Prince. Though people seek work, almost everyone has been reduced to heavy reliance on foreign organizations. A teenage girl told me what she hoped for most was that a visiting foreigner would take an interest in her. This was her only way to have food, clothes, and a chance to study outside of Haiti.

A  charcoal market in Port-au-Prince.
Charcoal market in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Kona Shen.

Extreme aid dependency in Haiti has hampered development for decades, and has shaped the country’s image in the international community. Haiti is often blamed by foreign media and politicians for its poverty, its corruption, and even its culture. In 1889, Haiti was labeled a “black mob pretending to be a government” by the New York Times.

In 1987, Lawrence E. Harrison, USAID director from 1977-1979, wrote that Haiti was a “moral void” and that “the principal cause of Haiti’s acute underdevelopment is a set of national values and attitudes by voodoo religion . . .” More than 100 years later, in 2004, the country was declared a “failed state” during Congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. Even in the wake of the earthquake, it was claimed that Haiti had made a “pact with the devil.”

These diagnoses of Haiti’s problems rarely acknowledge that the international community has undermined Haiti’s development for centuries. Following Haitian independence from France in 1804, the world imposed economic and political sanctions on the world’s first black republic.

The United States especially feared that the revolution would spread to its southern plantations, and incite slave rebellions. A U.S. Senator from South Carolina stated in 1824 that “Our policy with regard to Hayti [sic] is plain. We can never acknowledge her independence . . . The peace and safety of a large portion of our union forbids us even to discuss it.”

Leogane, Haiti was 90% destroyed in the  earthquake.
Leogane, Haiti was 90% destroyed in the earthquake. Photo: Kona Shen.

France refused to recognize Haiti until 1825, and then only in exchange for an indemnity of 150 million francs, equaling over 21 billion US dollars today. French abolitionist Victor Shoelcher wrote that “imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood.” Haiti’s debt payments continued until 1947, which effectively bankrupted the country in the 20th century, paving the way for reliance on foreign aid.

In the meantime, the United States moved to control Haiti, imposing a military occupation from 1915-1934. The American Marines disbanded the Haitian parliament at gunpoint, rewrote the constitution to allow foreign investment, and imposed martial law and forced labor.

To make matters worse, the occupation left a 40 million dollar debt, leaving Haiti a U.S. dependency. Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that “In the end, the U.S. occupation worsened all of Haiti’s structural ills.”

Hopefully, donors’ recent commitments of $10 billion for reconstruction signal a new stage in Haiti’s relations with the international community. In addition, much needs to be done to reframe how Haiti is viewed by the rest of the world. Over the last twenty years, Haiti was most often seen as the problem child of the Western Hemisphere.

Now, in the wake of the earthquake, the country has been re-cast as a victim. Following the earthquake, coverage of Haiti bordered on disaster porn. Colin Dayan has pointed out that in the wake of September 11, the media refrained from showing images of the dead in order to respect personal privacy.

In contrast, the photos that emerged in the days and weeks following the earthquake were graphic and invasive. Charred bodies in the streets, looters shot in the head, mass graves being filled, and close ups of grieving survivors were seen everywhere.

A  family outside their damaged home.
A family outside their damaged home. Photo: Kona Shen.

This coverage of Haiti has often lost track of the individual stories. Within the tent city in Leogane, a man sat in a small tarp-covered shack, which was stifling. He was surrounded by his children, whose stunted growth and swollen bellies indicated malnutrition. He said, “there are so many problems in Haiti. We don’t have food, we don’t have money, so the children can’t go to school.” Everyone asks about jobs. The camps are hectic, crowded, and tense, with everything heard by everyone. The walls are made of sheets and tarps, and there is no privacy.

The stories of the survivors are staggering. A ten-year old boy quietly explained what had happened to his family during the earthquake. His father had been working in Port-au-Prince and never came back. He had been with his mother inside their family home, and he alone had survived because he “ran faster.” His eyes are endlessly deep.

A woman caring for a niece and nephew said that her sister had gone inside to lie down, “and the whole ceiling came down and fell on her.” One man simply said, “People didn’t know any better, so when they felt the ground shake, they ran inside.” This is the new norm in Leogane: everyone has lost friends, family, their homes.

Though life has changed in the town forever, people are fighting to survive and move forward. Schools resume on April 5, though most classes will be held outside until parents and children are no longer afraid to enter buildings. Young men sell drink and snacks in the streets, walking all day in the harsh sun to make one U.S. dollar for all their work. Children in the shantytowns share their food with one another. Cash-for-work crews hired by NGOs clean the streets. People try to tap into the jobs and resources foreign organizations bring to the area.

Two  boys play with a handmade kite.
Two boys play with a handmade kite. Photo: Kona Shen.

Though Haiti has been violently shaken, Haitians’ abilities to persevere and seek better opportunities have never been more evident. Young men and women are looking for ways to finish their education so that they can find jobs and help rebuild the country. There is a new focus on engineering, medicine, and physical therapy for future careers.

The willingness of the international community to pledge aid for Haiti’s reconstruction underscores the expectation that the country can emerge from this disaster stronger than it was before. Madeleine, living in a Leogane shantytown, has lost everything she once had: family, friends, school. She remains focused, however, on how she can build her future. “I need a profession,” she said, “And I want to learn English.”

Other Stories by Jim Luce about Reconstruction in Haiti

Live Report: Cement Dust Coats All of Haiti, as 9/11 Dust Coated New York(Daily Kos)

Live Report: No Spiders to Bite Me in My Pre-Dawn Haitian Shower(Huffington Post)

Live Report: 200 Haitian Earthquake Survivors Interviewed for Ten Chinese Scholarships (Huffington Post)

Live Report: U.N. Blue Helmets from Sri Lanka Come to Our Assistance in Haiti (Daily Kos)

Live Report: Tremendous Progress Accomplished in Six Short Haitian Days(Huffington Post)

Live Report: Port-au-Prince – Dr. Tiffany Keenan on Connectivity in Haiti (Vimeo)

Live Report: Leogane – Walk-Through of our New Base, Ecole la Redemption (Vimeo)

Live Report: Leogane – Applicants for University Scholarships in Line (Vimeo)

Live Report: Leogane – Interviewing Global Team on Back of Truck (Vimeo)

Follow Jim Luce on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jimluce

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is rhe communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). Its Executive editor is Jim Luce, with Nigel Roberts Managing Director, John Lee as Culture & Lifestyle Editor, and Jeremy Hu Executive Director. There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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