Haitians in makeshift camps organize 'platoons' to provide services

Small groups have taken it upon themselves to establish security, organize aid deliveries, and maintain a minimum of sanitation in the sprawling 'tent cities' that cropped up in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

By , Staff writer

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    Kermly Hermé sits on a 'committee' of nine that organizes food, sanitation, and healthcare in one section of the sprawling Champ de Mars camp in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.
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As Haitians have accepted the stark reality that the camps that sprang up after the horrific Jan. 12 earthquake will be their home indefinitely, people have moved to get their new communities organized.

Enter any camp here, from the sprawling, stewing expanse of perhaps 10,000 people in the capital’s central Champ de Mars, to others on soccer fields and golf courses and inside the security barriers of now-crumbled public buildings, and in most cases you’ll find “the committee” – the small group of men and women who have taken it upon themselves to establish security, organize aid deliveries, and maintain a minimum of sanitation.

Behind these spontaneous and often basic attempts at self-government is a very human desire to put some order – and maybe even a bit of hope – into disrupted and disoriented lives.

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“The first distributions of food here were complete chaos. The groups got out of here before emptying their trucks because it was such a mess,” says Ben Constant, president of the “committee” at the Sylvio Cator soccer stadium camp, a few blocks west of the collapsed presidential palace in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. “That’s when we knew we had to get this thing organized.”

Mr. Constant, a well-known Port-au-Prince DJ who before the quake managed the stadium for the Haitian Federation of Football, sat down to figure out who was living in the camp – about 700 families, more than 2,500 people – what was needed, and who could do what.

Clean-up 'platoons'

Clean-up and security “platoons” were established – the word “platoon” harking back to Constant’s years serving in the US Army and Vietnam (he’s a Haitian citizen who lived in the US for a number of years). A clinic with what he claims is now some of the best emergency pediatric care in the city was set up – open not just to the camp population but to all Haitian kids in need.

And families were assigned a number – it’s all written down by hand on a neat ledger – so that numbers are called when aid arrives, and the distribution is more orderly.

Constant says he felt compelled to organize day-to-day living at the camp because frustration was building “and something bad was going to happen.” The fact he and his family live at the stadium as well was another motivation. “We lost everything like everybody else,” he says. “We’re just trying to make what we can of this situation.”

In some cases, the camp committee members were involved in neighborhood governing boards before the quake, and simply transferred their skills and social-organizing abilities to their new residence.

Kermly Hermé is one of those people. Active in the Bel Air neighborhood before the quake, she is now the doyenne of at least a section of the sprawling Champ de Mars camp.

A large woman with a colorful muumuu and a massive bun fashioned of tight braids, Ms. Herme says the “committee” of nine she sits on has assigned itself such tasks as keeping the nearby port-a-johns “orderly” and getting the sick and wounded to clinics.

She herself has taken on the job of going to market to buy provisions – with the small “dues” the committee collects of camp residents – to prepare a daily hot meal.

Indeed, Herme suddenly excuses herself from an interview and moves to the bubbling pots a few steps away, where a rather forlorn-looking man holds out a Styrofoam takeout container. Without a word she scoops rice onto the plate and then ladles chicken in chickpea sauce over it. The man thanks her and walks on.

Camps outside of Port-au-Prince

The camp organizing is not limited to Port-au-Prince, but appears to have sprung up wherever Haitians find themselves without a house and obliged to join others in makeshift communities.

In Jacmel on Haiti’s southern coast, the 13 individuals attempting to put some order into the lives of 600 homeless people in the crushed center city have even given themselves a fancy title: Management Committee of the Victims at Toussaint Louverture Square.

As was the case with the stadium camp, impending anarchy prompted the committee’s formation.

“A truck from Doctors without Borders came with kits of supplies to hand out, but it was such terrible disorder they left in a hurry,” says Michelet Jerôme. “That got us going.”

The committee now has a security team – petty theft by “outsiders” was becoming a problem – and food, shelter, and health subcommittees.

Another important committee function is to advocate for the camp with the dozens of international assistance organizations that are bringing supplies and services into the city. “We have a serious lack of tents, but if you go into some of the streets in the higher [up the hill] neighborhoods, you’ll see them lined with red tents because they had good contact with the organization that provided tents,” Mr. Jerôme says. “We need a committee to establish relations with these groups.”

Longer-term housing needs

The camp organizing is taking hold just as the Haitian government plans for the longer-term housing needs of perhaps 1 million Haitians during the country’s reconstruction period. Last week Haitian officials said they had already secured 400,000 tents from international donors, and had so far selected sites in Port-au-Prince for two large camps.

Some of the camp organizers say they expect many of the makeshift camps to remain, in part because they are often close to people’s neighborhoods. Others say they will be happy to turn over management to the government. Some, however, fear any attempt to build camps of several thousand families make things worse. Among the concerns: The new camps will be located far from the city center, transportation won't be adequate, and distribution of food and other needs – still a problem in the makeshift camps – will deteriorate in camps with more people.

Hermé of the Champ de Mars says she can understand that 10,000 people can’t continue living in the city’s central public space, but she also says that past experience suggests to her that the government will have a hard time getting the new camps right.

“If they organize things well from the beginning, with good services and transportation, it can work,” she says. “But already we only find out about their plans on the radio, so it’s not a good start.”

And at the stadium camp, Constant is even less hopeful. “They’re going to try to do something that is impossible,” he says. “I know what we’re going through here with 800 people,” he says. “Can you imagine what it will take to succeed with 5,000 people living in the same camp?”

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