Haiti earthquake diary: The lives within the tent cities

There is an organized world within the tent cities that have cropped up all over Port-au-Prince since the Jan. 12 earthquake. I meet a young woman who gave birth the day of the earthquake and a boy who races a toy car he made from trash.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
A girl leans against a tent made of bed sheets and sticks at a makeshift refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, Monday. In the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake, as many as 1 million people need to find new shelter, the United Nations estimates, and there are too few tents, let alone safe buildings, in which to house them.

Friday, Jan. 22

Stories about Haiti are dropping off the ABC network's lineup, so the TV crew I'm working with is starting to downsize. The big name anchors are, for the most part, either gone or slated to leave by Sunday. Our ABC nightly news story is cut from the schedule, fighting for time with John Edwards. Then it’s back on the schedule, but competes with a dog being rescued from a flood. Huh? Not that I don’t like dogs, but it’s hard to feel empathy for man’s best friend when outside my door thousands of people are living in tents, their lives buried somewhere between, beneath, or below enormous chunks of concrete.

There is an organized world within these tents. I meet a young woman who gave birth the day of the earthquake.

She lies on a piece of cardboard, a pile of clothes under her head, breastfeeding. It might have broken my heart last week, but now it's just one of a thousand things that I try not to let slow me down. If I stopped at every stall, talked to every person in the tent camp, the amount of suffering would drown me. Am I becoming hardened?

I remember, decades ago, I had said if I ever became immune to the poverty of this country that I should leave. I’m hoping I’m not immune, but I can’t take this all in. It hurts too much.

A man with am American flag tied around his waist tells me to tell the world that he wants Haiti to be a protectorate of the US. He wants the US to treat Haiti like Puerto Rico, help it get its act together. Another man, alcohol on his breath, yells at a camera crew, tells them to go away.

I befriend a young boy who, when not fetching water for his mom or doing whatever other chores he has been assigned, makes little trucks out of discarded plastic juice containers. He takes a razor, slices off a side of the container, pokes a hole on either end for tires, inserts the stick of a lollipop as an axle in the front and the back and then pops on some wheels. With string he pulls from the piles of garbage that are swept up all day long by conscientious residents, he makes a long leash and runs along the perimeter of the square with his buddies, racing the cars. He’d rather be in school, he says, but then admits that he wasn’t in school before the earthquake because his mother didn’t have enough money.

In another corner of the square, a group of people congregate around a table. Someone from the office of the Mayor of Petionville, a leafy suburb of Port-au-Prince, has set up a table and is asking the residents of the tent camp questions: name, where they lived, was their house damaged or destroyed, were people injured, would they be willing to relocate. When the form is complete the government employee hands the resident a tiny slip of paper as a receipt. I’ve no doubt the camp will last far longer than the slip of paper.

A woman from the International Rescue Committee sees me watching the scene and pulls me aside. She’s upset: the City of Petionville hopes to relocate the residents soon to Croix des Bouquets, a town not far from Port-au-Prince on the way to the Dominican border. She thinks it’s a bad idea, says they shouldn’t be forced to leave what they know, that some families have yet to recover bodies, belongings. Of the 100 forms she’s seen, she claims, only one person said they’d be willing to relocate.

I see her point, but I’m trying to be realistic. This situation isn’t sustainable. Haitians are resilient – the whole world has finally had a chance to see that. But it’s only a matter of time before the lack of hygiene in these urban tent cities becomes problematic. And what happens when the rains come? That’s more than I want to think about now.

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