What follows is an edited version of an interview conducted April 3 with Elvire Constant, a member of Women in Action From Petit Rivière de l’Artibonite (OFAPRA), one of six organized aid committees operating in an internally displaced persons’ camp. The camp was located in Delmas, a Port-au-Prince suburb, on the grounds of St. Louis de Gonzague, an elite Catholic school. The school’s director, Father Patrick Belanger, wanted to evict the almost 12,000 camp residents to allow the school to reopen. Many camp dwellers did eventually leave at the end of April, after a space was finally completed a half-hour away and out of town.
We heard that Father Belanger didn’t want to distribute food in this camp as a way to force you to leave. Is that true?
From the time I’ve been in the camp, there has only been one food distribution. A container showed up, and there was such a struggle. People were fighting. There was something like 3,000 sacks of rice and a big conflict. The people [at World Vision International, the NGO distributing food] had time to give out only 20 sacks, and they turned around and left. Since then there has never been a food distribution inside the St. Louis camp because the priest was saying that there will be fights.
When I came here myself, I saw that people were in such need that I needed to make my own effort. I asked for aid outside, and people brought it here. We used to have water. We had KIKO, a water distributor that sells little sacks of water, which came by almost once a day with a water truck. Each truck had 500 sacks of drinking water. The Spanish Red Cross also gave a little water for people to bathe.
But we got to a place where the priest saw there were too many people in the compound, more than 11,800. Belanger said that if he continued giving food, people would never make an effort to leave. He said food would never come inside the grounds. If an affected person eats inside the grounds, you know that she left and found it outside. Even the water—he said no water should be coming inside the camp. Even though he forced us out, he asked us to leave before taking an important step: He should have met with at least one person from every committee. Then he had the mayor of Delmas come and try to force us out.
He stopped the aid from coming to the grounds completely. This was more than a month ago. If we didn’t leave, blood would be spilled, because the voice of the people is the voice of God. He would have gotten what he was dishing out as far as threats. The mayor and police didn’t return, but the priest didn’t authorize even a single water sack to enter the camp. Now the people are suffering.
How did you secure food?
Finally, World Vision sent a messenger to come here with little cards. They passed from tent to tent, giving out a little card. Despite this not everyone got one. Out of 11,867 people, there are 1,400 families. Of the 1,400 families, only 800 got one.
That’s the first time?
The first time World Vision came to give out cards, but they didn’t give the food out here. People took the cards and went to Grace Children’s Hospital to get the food. But it’s all of these serious problems! When I look at Haiti, in the end, we’re without support. For people to get food, they have to get up at three in the morning. Some people even sleep in line. They stand in front of the gate in line. The line starts just outside the gate behind the hospital and wraps all around the block. The person who gets up at 3 a.m., they know that 1 p.m. comes, and they still haven’t gotten their food. And they give you a card for today. They tell you if you don’t take the food tomorrow, the card will expire. It’s no good anymore.
So you need to suffer.
You need to stand. People stand four or five hours, up to eight hours standing in line before finally getting the food.
A sack of rice, a small sack of rice, like Tchako [the Haitian brand name for Riceland, donated by USAID]. Even though they give rice, they give another card to come back tomorrow to get two cans of beans, a little wheat, a half gallon of oil. That’s all. They don’t tell you when they’re coming back to give the aid. They came by only once, and 800 families out of 1,400 got a card. And since that date we haven’t gotten anything. “We are going to die, my friend.” That’s what I said. People leave, they go out and find a little job, do the job, and with this little money they come back. Once in a while they find a friend who gives them a can of rice. For me, in this camp, I have never gotten a card! My mother makes food every day at her house. She sends it for me and my friend.
The Doctors Without Borders in the area works in the hospital. There are orthopedics for people who have problems in their bones, like broken feet or fractured arms. They did a good job! When you go to the hospital, you don’t have to pay, and they give first aid. But they don’t give out food. We can say that if you come here, you find people who aren’t shuddering. The rain doesn’t beat them.
Doctors Without Borders were the ones who gave out the tents, 1,520 of them, giving them to us in a good system. They gave you a coupon for the tent and then came by with a car in the grounds, picked you up in the car, and dropped you off where you can pick up the tent. Then they returned you here. The tent they gave you was like this one [a large, five- to six-person canvas tent]. And then you got a ticket for the accessories, and got picked up and dropped off the same. For all the materials you will need with the tent, you return to pick it up. But the priest stopped it.
What about your other needs? Everyone needs water to drink, to wash, to go to the toilet. How do you this?
The Spanish Red Cross came to install drinking water, wash water. But for the toilet, this whole area only had one portable toilet.
Yes. Doctors Without Borders was supposed to return, but that’s been suspended. They even stopped a mobile clinic! The people had a lot of infections. There’s a lot of dust when it doesn’t rain. I saw that many children have fever, diarrhea, or colds because of the dust. I was forced to go uphill to look for the Americans to build a mobile clinic here. But the priest told the Americans to not pile up the grounds! He said there were too many tents in the compound, that the space was saturated. If Doctors Without Borders gave us another tent, the authorities would be forced . . .
To make everyone leave?
No. They would be forced to involve the law, to call the police to force people out. Foreigners, if they come in your country, if they give you support, they hear the state is blocking it. Belanger told us that like it or not, all schools are supposed to open on April 5, and if they don’t, the state will permanently shut them. So we have to leave. He told us to create a central committee so that when we all are forced out, we do so in an orderly fashion.
But there’s space for school and there’s space for us to live here without us ever coming in contact with the students and teachers. The people came here because of a natural disaster. Before this, the people never came inside the school grounds. If now they come inside, it’s because they have a need, a necessity, that forces them here. When the people ran here, they were looking for a little shelter. They didn’t know where to go.