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Haiti: Notes from the Field

Shortly after the horrific earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and left a million more homeless, USCRI's Sarah Petrin Williamson arrived in Haiti to help Haitians find relief and temporary shelter and to make sure that the human rights of all Haitians are protected during the long rebuilding process to come. She is working with our local partner, Groupe d'Appui aux Rapatries et Refugies (GARR) the Support Group for Refugees and Returnees. What she saw was heartbreaking:

"There are some very sick people, elderly, traumatized kids, and women about to give birth!" she reported, describing an informal settlement of 700 survivors huddled on a neighbor's former tennis court. Follow Sarah's work on the ground in Haiti.

Figure 1: Sarah with Colette from GARR delivering milk and bread.
Figure 2: Haitian military base in Port-au-Prince
Figure 3: Ministry of Justice



MONDAY, JAN. 25, 2010

Unaccompanied children crossing the border into the Dominican Republic

On my way to Port-au-Prince today, I met with a UNHCR representative in Jimani, a town on the Dominican Republic's border. She reported that the border "is open" but not to everyone. Medical evacuees, unaccompanied children, and others with urgent protection concerns are usually allowed through.

When unaccompanied children from Haiti arrive at the border, the UNHCR representative asks UNICEF to verify the whereabouts or deaths of their relatives in order to make a best-interest determination for each case. Some children are placed in local shelters.

The situation with unaccompanied children made my colleague Colette (who works for our Haiti-based partner agency, GARR) very upset. "Maybe they have parents," she said. "It is too soon to know for sure."

Figure 4: Two children pose for a picture; a growing settlement in the background.
Figure 5: More children at play.



The growing number of small settlements and the upcoming rainy season are major concerns for the relief community

The border town close to Jimani on the Haitian side is Front Parisian. UNHCR does not have reports of a significant number of internally displaced people (IDP) there, but when I passed by the town, I saw large truckloads of people on the roads.

In my meeting with UNHCR today, I've learned that the large spontaneous settlements in Haiti are receiving a lot of media attention and (uncoordinated) assistance from nonprofit organizations. UNHCR is appropriately less concerned with protection in the larger areas than with the smaller sites.

The chief concern about shelter and relocation is what will happen when the rainy season begins in May. Many of the buildings that are still standing are unsafe and in disrepair. There are a fair number of leaning telephone poles and other towers that will fall on houses and the informal camps with any kind of significant weather event.

Figure 6: The camps where people stay are close to their destroyed neighborhoods.
Figure 7: The Government of Haiti attends the shelter meeting.
Figure 8: The shelter meeting tent flooded after the first rain.



WEDNESDAY, JAN. 27, 2010

Hundreds seek shelter on a neighbor's tennis court

Near our headquarters a neighbor’s backyard has been transformed into an informal settlement for 700 homeless earthquake survivors -- just a small taste of the challenges we face as we move forward. Aid is simply not reaching everyone who needs it.

The camp started with 200 people from the local area breaking down the fence around the neighbor's tennis court. Then 500 more people came. At night there are many more people. The neighbor gave into the madness -- after listening to cries all night and morning for help -- and has stockpiled supplies in his living room as if it were a warehouse for distributions!

In this informal camp, there are some very sick people, elderly, traumatized kids, and women about to give birth! This site is not on the UN maps and there are no nonprofit organizations helping here.

The following is a small selection of snapshots. With the recent addition of private security around the premises, there are certain rules about taking photos.

Figure 9: Three boys posing by the fence around our neighbor's tennis court.
Figure 10: Entrance to the neighbor's tennis court.
Figure 11: A woman, nine months pregnant, in line for aid at the makeshift settlement.
Figure 12: Our neighbors turned their living room into a warehouse for supplies.



THURSDAY, JAN. 28, 2010

Ad hoc settlements are sprouting everywhere

There are many more spontaneous settlements in the affected areas of the earthquake than are shown on the UN maps. I'm not sure how many, but possibly hundreds more. One reason for this is that UN planes are using satellite imagery from the air to discern where people are and cannot detect small groups huddling under trees.

Today, we visited a private company where 200 people are seeking shelter under the trees along the property line. The moment we reveal that we're from a refugee organization, local people walk us over to their back yard to show us the growing settlements on their property. It's almost as if there’s a small refugee camp in every back yard. Everyone with a house still standing wants to force these now homeless earthquake survivors off his land.

Those able and willing to help others are starting with their own back yard. For instance, my colleagues Colette and Patrick are first addressing the needs of people in and near their house. Colette is helping a number of settlements along Delmas 33, close to where she lives. There are too many needs, so she is focusing on babies and pregnant women.

In each smaller, informal settlement you find urgent medical needs that have not been attended to: men with gaping wounds across their heads, women about to lose their legs, and children in trauma.

Figure 13: People seeking shelter in an informal settlement.
Figure 14: The head of the informal settlement explains that no one has helped them yet. They are under the trees and the UN satellite planes cannot see them from the sky.
Figure 15: A woman losing her leg due to an infection. We took her to the nearest hospital.



Thousands of Haitians are desperate to escape the misery and chaos of Port-au-Prince

The UN has shut down the road to the U.S. Embassy due to the large number of people attempting to get visas. The diversion around the road block takes one hour and is necessary to pass in order to travel around the city.

We were able to access the airport where joint operations are in place. It is heavily guarded and appears less chaotic than the media portrays -- or things have now calmed down significantly. Supplies and cars are everywhere.

There is only one small area from which people can leave for the United States. It is heavily guarded by Special Forces teams. The people leaving are presumably pre-cleared and seated under a designated tent until their flight boards.

Figure 16: This is the UN Coordination Center for the humanitarian efforts. Seriously, this is it. Imagine...
Figure 17: This is where all the humanitarian workers meet each day to prioritize needs and plan joint operations.



USCRI's partner agency has suffered serious damage in the earthquake...

The house from which GARR operates is still standing, but damaged from the earthquake. The guardian of the rental property, Pierre Richard, showed me the damage and looted areas. The owner is arranging for an engineer to do a structural assessment.

In the neighborhood near the office, there is significant destruction and several informal settlements. Long lines of people circle around military water trucks. Several roads in the area are blocked by bulldozers lifting debris. I saw people burning dead bodies on the side of the road because they had not been collected.

Figure 18: Sarah and the GARR team in their first picture since the earthquake...all survived!
Figure 19: The backyard of the GARR office suffered extensive damage.
Figure 20: A displaced community has taken over the back yard of the GARR office, piling up trash and sewage.



...but our relief efforts and work to protect displaced, vulnerable Haitians are going strong

GARR's staff is monitoring Haitians who are turned away at the border and the repatriation of Haitians being forcibly returned from within the Dominican Republic.

We're focused on getting information and reports from GARR's voluntary human rights committees in Belladere, further north along the border from Jimani. Reportedly, there are a significant number of now homeless displaced people in the Central Plateau area.

In the High Plateau, GARR's committees are reporting up to 3 million displaced people. Our Haitian partners are trying to evaluate the situation in every region and feel strongly about helping displaced people seek shelter in reconstruction zones with social housing rather than camps. Social housing involves helping individuals whose homes are still standing and are able to offer shelter to others who are now homeless. Another viable option for those who are now homeless is to return to their village of origin. As is the case with most big cities, many people in Port-au-Prince are not from there but from smaller towns in the countryside.

Figure 21: My colleagues, Patrick and Colette, during a GARR meeting not long after the earthquake.
Figure 22: Colette leads a meeting between all the local NGOs and the heads of UN agencies.
Figure 23: Colette and Patrick, our local partners, with Buti from UNHCR Washington, D.C.
Figure 24: Colette and Viles speak with the UN about protection.



FRIDAY, JAN. 29, 2010

Still more people desperately trying the leave the chaos

The lines at the U.S. Embassy must be about a 1,000 people or more -- but the planes leaving for the States only have a small trickle of people on them. The tent where people leave from is heavily guarded by Special Forces. So sad, the difference between those who are on the outside and those who get to leave.

Figure 25: This camp of 50,000 people took over the golf course at Petionville Club. It is guarded by the US Army.
Figure 26: These three girls were watching the U.S. soldiers.
Figure 27: Another view of the 50,000-person camp on the golf course.



SUNDAY, JAN. 31, 2010

I will stay in Haiti for some time to come. There is much more to do for all the earthquake survivors who have lost so much...

TUESDAY, FEB. 2, 2010

I am looking for a secure house and office in Port-au-Prince…

SUNDAY, FEB. 7, 2010

I have found an office -- and a home -- in Haiti

There is a red gate outside. Because the house is one level you can't see it from the street. There is a perimeter inside the walls that several large dogs surround at night, once the house is locked. The dogs are kept in another area to the back of the home during the day. I don't like dogs but I appreciate the extra security. I am sure they would eat anyone who dared enter.

Figure 28: Front gate.
Figure 29: Bedroom.



TUESDAY, FEB. 9, 2010

Procuring supplies through Santo Domingo -- plus, the saga of our confiscated tents

I went to the Dominican Republic on Thursday, Feb.4 to haggle with customs to release USCRI's tents. When I got there, the head of customs promised to release them to me on Monday. No such luck. I have finally recovered the tents today -- five days later -- and am heading back to Haiti with Lee Williams, USCRI's CFO.

Figure 30: USCRI's CFO, Lee Williams, accompanied me on a backup flight to Santo Domingo from a local airline that just started operating again.
Figure 31: The head of customs releases USCRI and PTF supplies from the warehouses in Santo Domingo.
Figure 32: USCRI supplies placed on a UN truck at the warehouse.
Figure 33: Lee and Sarah board a UN plane from Santo Domingo back to Haiti.
Figure 34: Young men at the warehouse in Port-au-Prince eagerly unload our supplies.

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