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With plastic and cardboard, Haitians build communities

Following the devastating earthquake, Haiti’s government has collapsed. The wealthy have been able to escape Port-au-Prince, leaving poor Haitians to build some sense of community out of refugee camps.

By Staff writer / January 23, 2010

People displaced by the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12 build makeshift houses in the slum of Bel Aire in downtown Port-au-Prince Saturday.

Marco Dormino/UN/MINUSTAH/Reuters

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti

It’s nearing lunch time at the Primatur Gardens refugee camp in Haiti’s capital, and the 4,000 homeless arrayed under plastic tarps, umbrellas, and tree shade are getting hungry.

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“There’s no food or potable water provided here, and we have to cut the trees to be able to cook, but at least we are all alive,” says Jeanne-Baptiste Vania, as she breaks spaghetti in two and drops it into a bubbling pot of fish stock.

The matriarch says her family of 17 lost their home and all their possessions “the day the earth shook.” Not knowing what else to do, they came that night to the gardens of the prime minister’s residence – and here they have scratched out their meager existence ever since.

Ten days after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Haitians in the capital of Port–au-Prince are living in open-air camps – with no prospects for moving into shelter and out from under the tropical country’s hot sun any time soon.

Wealthy left, leaving city to the poor

The city’s wealthy and relatively well-off have mostly fled to farms or family outside the collapsed capital, and that has left Port-au-Prince – already home to many poor – a city of the poorest.

Relief officials estimate that at least 250 camps like Primatur have sprung up around the capital, becoming home to hundreds of thousands of Haitians who either lost their shelter in the 7.0 temblor or remain too afraid to return to destroyed neighborhoods.

Official help comes sporadically to the camps, residents say, but in most cases potable water is still unavailable and food lands in plastic bowls on an “every family for itself” basis. On Thursday the Red Cross delivered supplies to Primatur – plastic sheeting, the rudiments of a health clinic – and United Nations Blue Helmets provide security from a truck parked outside the camp’s perimeter.

But mostly, Primatur’s residents say they feel abandoned.

“The government, they really don’t care a bit about us,” says Magda Jeidy, who squats under a tarp with her parents and a dozen other relatives – all of whom ran from their contorting home and watched as the earthquake collapsed it and then sent it sliding into a ravine. “We saw the Americans and some French here once, but if we waited for our government we’d all die.”

The archbishop mourned

Port-au-Prince continues to bury its dead, both the poor and the prominent. On Saturday, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, who died in the collapse of the city’s cathedral, was honored with a funeral on the cathedral grounds attended by numerous dignitaries and hundreds of Catholic faithful.

Standing under a withering sun, the crowd sang hymns in French and Latin, and repeated the Lord’s Prayer. When the officiating priest declared “Your love is stronger than death,” a hushed “Amen!” rippled through the assembly.