Monday, February 22, 2010

Outside Haitian Capital, Survivor Settlements Sprout

At the foot of rocky hills north of Haiti's earthquake-shattered capital Port-au-Prince, new settlements are sprouting as survivors flee the claustrophobic, rubble-clogged chaos of the stricken city.

BAS CANAAN, Haiti (Reuters) - Led by evangelical pastors, several thousand quake victims, some with little more than the clothes they stand in, have thrown up flimsy dwellings of wooden frames draped in cloth or plastic in plots marked out in the dry earth with machetes.

"There's nothing here, it's a desert, but we feel safer," said Jean Oswald Estcyr, as members of his family put up the stick supports that will frame their new home. In the hills around, hundreds more such crude homes are going up.

The shanties look the same as the sprawling crowded tent encampments that cram every space and cranny of the wrecked capital -- except that they are sited several miles (kilometers) outside the city in a parched no-man's land not far from where mass graves hold the bodies of thousands of quake dead.

Haitian President Rene Preval now says the final toll from the catastrophic January 12 quake, one of the most lethal natural disasters in modern history, could reach 300,000.

Delays in delivering humanitarian aid, especially shelter materials to protect against upcoming rains, have prompted many survivors to flee the stench and squalor of the crippled capital to seek living space in barren plains to the north.

"In Port-au-Prince, a lot of the houses are destroyed, and there are many people living among the rubble. It smells," said Britus Jeancean, 32, a mason, explaining why he and his family chose to move to this scrubby wasteland outside the city.

But the new shanty settlements pose another headache for the international relief operation which has been struggling to get food, water and plastic sheeting out to the more than 1 million homeless, most of them camped out higgledy-piggledy in the spaces and streets of Port-au-Prince.

If anything, these refugees from the city have even less than their urban counterparts -- no nearby food outlets or water sources and no sanitation, to judge from the pungent smell of human excrement and acrid smoke that wafts across the mushrooming settlement.

"We need tents, tarpaulins, water cisterns, toilets," said Jeancean. "We wanted to live better, and we can do it, if we have help," he added.


What leadership exists in this newly founded survivors settlement appears to be provided by evangelical pastors.

In this site alongside Route Number 1 heading north out of Port-au-Prince, a blue plastic awning stretched over poles marks the temporary place of worship of members of the Philadelphia Evangelical Church of Haiti.

The pastor, Reverend Augustin Osny, 42, who clutches a Holy Bible in one hand and a cellphone in the other, said he had brought groups of his worshipers, left homeless by the quake, to this new living place in the middle of nowhere.

"We would like to live here, to found a village, we are waiting for the state to do something," he said.

No one is too sure who the occupied land belongs to, but that does not seem to bother them.

"It belongs to the Haitian state ... that's us," said another pastor, Joseph Michel Volny, who said he was from the Salem Evangelical Church.

"We feel better here ... a little anyway," he added.

Asked about schools for the children who abound, one mother, Elsa Orlean, just shrugs. Another woman, Marie Ifeta Chales, with five children, said they lost all their possessions in the quake. "We're starting again, but we're starting with nothing. We share with each other," she said.

As in the city camps, rains would quickly turn the settlement into a quagmire, and bring the risk of flash floods.

Haitian authorities have made clear they frown on such spontaneous settlements outside the city.

Secretary of State for Public Safety Aramick Louis said in Port-au-Prince authorities had destroyed more than 800 shanty homes at one spontaneous settlement at Morne Garnier. "Our decision is firm. We call on everyone to cooperate," he said.

But this threat cuts little ice among the occupants of the new survivors village at Bas Canaan, who say they have seen no Haitian authorities enquiring after their pressing needs.

"The only authority here is God," said Alfred Amos, 40, pointing to the sky, amid a chorus of murmured assent from those around him.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Barria and Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Eric Beech)

Source: Reuters

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