We women demand!…” sang out a hundred plus voices “…Justice for Marie!” Marie, a 25 year old pregnant mother, was injured by government agents when they slammed a wooden door into her stomach during an early morning invasion of an earthquake displacement camp in Port au Prince. The government is using force to try to force thousands to leave camps without providing any place for people to go. The people are fighting back.
The people calling for justice are residents of a make shift tent camp called Camp Django in the Delmas 17 neighborhood of Port au Prince. They are up in arms over injuries to Marie, one of their young mothers, and repeated government threats to demolish their homes. Despite the 100 degree heat, over a hundred residents, mostly mothers, trekked across town to demand the government protect their human right to housing.
At their invitation, we followed them back to the place they have made lived since the January 12, 2010 earthquake that left hundreds of thousands homeless. In a sloping lot smaller than a football field, two hundred fifty families live in handmade shelters made out of grey and blue plastic tarps/tents, scraps of wood and mismatched pieces of tin. The tarps under which they live are faded from a year-and-a-half of sun but still show brands of USAID, World Vision, Rotary International, UNICEF, UNFAM, Republic of China and others. Outside the camp, big green trees with flame orange flowers provide color and shade.
Inside, babies and little children peek out of tent openings that reveal mats on the ground and beds and boxes. Families live inches from their neighbors. They buy water outside and carry it back to their tents. Four topless wooden boxes with blue plastic UN tarps are the showers where people can wash themselves if they bring their own water and soap. Hole in the dirt toilets are few, full and pungent in the 100 degree heat. They are surrounded by razzing flies. When it rains, rainwater flows into tents and the mess from the toilets spreads all over.
A teenage boy clad only in his underwear soap washes himself in between tents. A middle age woman sits under a banana tree nursing a dollar bill size patch of open wound on her foot, a quake injury that demands a skin graft she cannot afford. A family has an aluminum pan filled with grey water and skinned bananas. Camp leaders tell us their community contains over 375 little children including 20 children whose parents died in the earthquake.
“We are earthquake victims,” the women and men of the camp tell us as they show us around. “We have a human right to live somewhere. We do not want to fight for the right to stay in these camps. It is very hot here and we cannot stay in the tents in the middle of the day. But we all search and search and there is no other place to go. Until we get housing, these homes are everything we have.”
There are nearly a thousand such camps of people across Port au Prince. Some house thousands, many like Camp Django, housed hundreds.
A government myth says people gather in the camps only to receive food and water and medical services. The truth is that many, many camps, including Camp Django, get no water, food or medical services. They are there, they tell us, because they have no other place to go.
We visited Marie (not her real name for her protection) in her boxlike tent. She lies on a bed writhing in pain. She has been vomiting and bleeding and was surrounded by other residents of the camp. They were taking turns propping her up and drying her forehead. They explained to us that she had been assaulted by men who entered their camp at the order of the Mayor of the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas.
Last Saturday, a group of five men, some armed with guns, stormed into the camp and threatened the residents. Four of the men were wearing green t-shirts that read “Mairie de Delmas” (The Office of the Mayor of Delmas).
The Mayor’s men told the people that they would soon destroy their tents. They bragged they would mistreat people in a manner worse than “what happened at Carrefour Aero port,” referring to the violent unlawful eviction of a displacement camp at that location by the same mayor and police less than a month ago.
The Mayor’s men pushed their way through the camp, collecting the names and identification numbers of heads of household and marking tents with red spray painted numbers.
When the men pounded on the wooden door of the tarp covered shelter where 25-year-old pregnant Marie lived with her husband, she tried to stop them from entering. Marie tried to explain that her husband was not home. But the leader of the group, JL, violently slammed open the wooden door of her tent into her stomach, causing her to fall hard against the floor on her back.
Three days later, Marie remained in severe pain and bed ridden, worried sick about her baby.
When one of Marie’s neighbors protested JL’s brutality, JL became enraged and threatened to kill him. Onlookers in the camp feared his words, particularly when they noticed a pistol tucked into his belt.
When the government pushed their way into the camp, residents called human rights advocates from Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and asked them to come at once.
Jeena Shah, a BAI attorney, arrived at Camp Django while government agents were still there. Jeena asked JL who had sent his group to Camp Django and why they had marked the tents with numbers. JL was evasive, repeating over and over that “the government” had sent him. Finally he stated that “the National Palace,” a reference to current President Michel Martelly, had sent him. As of the writing of this article, the President had neither confirmed nor denied authorization or participation in the threatened eviction.
Camp Django residents rightfully feared that their camp faced the same fate that so many displaced persons had since the earthquake more than 18 months ago—violent eviction, exacerbation of their already vulnerable situations and homelessness.
Camp Django is but a small example of what is going on in Haiti. The International Organization on Migration estimated that as of April 2011, 166,000 homeless earthquake survivors were facing imminent threats of eviction, one fourth of the displaced population. The evictions have been carried out by the government or with the government’s tacit approval despite rulings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ directing to the Haitian government to place a moratorium on evictions and create adequate measures to protect the displaced population from unlawful forced evictions.
It is still unclear whether the Mayor of Delmas encouraged or condoned these specific acts of violence against the residents of Camp Django, but the Mayor’s stand on forced evictions is well known. After leading a rampage of violent unlawful evictions last month, he recently stated on Haitian television that he will continue forcing displaced communities out of their tent camps, even though they still have nowhere else to go.
President Martelly, who has refused to publicly condemn the violent forced evictions perpetrated by the Mayor of Delmas, is responsible for any threats and harm that befall the community of Camp Django and Haiti’s thousand other displacement camps.
The women sing out for justice. “The rich,” they tell us, “use force against the poor in Haiti.” They demand justice for Marie. And they insist their human right to housing be protected. They are organizing. Their voices are strong. Their passion is pure. Their cause is just. They inspire us to join them.