By DEBORAH SONTAG
Published: March 21, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When Mimrose Marson fled her devastated neighborhood for the Pétionville Club, she never dreamed that her family would sink roots on its nine-hole golf course. The club had a history of land disputes with its neighbors, and the sign on its gate said “Members Only” in English.
Children waited for trucks delivering drinking water at the camp. Yet more than two months after the earthquake, Ms. Marson, a former garment worker, was still there, hanging embroidered drapes at her tent’s entrance while her grandson decorated a sign that read “Our House” in Creole. “I do not play golf but I am a victim, so here I am,” she said. “Here we all are. Until the rains wash us away, I guess.”
The Pétionville Club, soaked by heavy rains late last week, has transformed itself into a mucky makeshift city. Home to at least 44,000 displaced people living under tarpaulins on its steep slopes, the club has a quasi-mayor, a ragtag security force, a marketplace, two movie theaters, three nightly prayer services, rival barber shops and even a plastic-sheeted salon offering manicures and pedicures. The club offers a portrait of entrenched transience, its population dynamic enough to move forward but spinning its wheels like a car stuck in mud. That reflects where Haiti is now, too, as it awaits a March 31 international donors’ conference in New York with the hope of kick-starting the reconstruction effort.
Although the country has taken a giant step beyond the shock and grief of the disaster, many here feel that inertia has taken hold, symbolized by the presidential palace, which looms like a smashed wedding cake over a capital still filled with rubble.
“Where do we go from here?” asked Jean Noel François, an elected official from the Delmas municipality who has assumed the role of unofficial mayor in the Pétionville camp, ministering to his constituents from a tent under a tamarind tree. “That is what I asked President René Préval when I went to see him: What is the plan?”
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who set up a Haiti fund at President Obama’s request, are scheduled to visit Haiti together on Monday to discuss recovery plans in advance of the donors’ conference. According to a draft summary of the Haitian government’s damage and needs assessment released last week, Haiti will need $11.5 billion to build anew.
Before long-term reconstruction begins, though, Haiti faces the challenge of managing a displaced population of about 1.2 million temporarily resettled in some 460 encampments in the Port-au-Prince area. About 40 percent still do not have tents or tarpaulins.
The rainy season, which officially begins in April but offered a preview on Friday when rain swamped tent cities, has the potential to wreak havoc on the many spontaneous settlements in areas prone to flooding or mudslides.
Some of the largest and most overcrowded camps, like the one at the Pétionville Club, have been identified by bureaucrats for “decongestion.” Yet for the moment, these same tent cities continue to mushroom as a result of the food, water, sanitation and medical services provided them by international groups.
At the Pétionville Club, Catholic Relief Services has registered 7,352 families and provided almost all of them with shelter kits — tarps, nails and rope — and 30-day rations of food (fortified bulgur, green peas, a corn-soy blend and vegetable oil).
Hundreds of American troops were stationed at the camp until they started pulling out earlier this month. Now an unarmed Haitian security force, composed of about 200 volunteers wearing neon yellow vests, patrols the golf course, trying to mediate disputes.
“We get a lot of cases: men beating up women, women beating up other women, people biting off other peoples’ ears,” said Romulus Renald Black, one of the volunteers. “We bring them into our security tent, judge them, and, if it’s a big case, we call in the police.”
Another patrolman said that there had been several rapes and assaults but only one killing. As to the number of ear bitings, Mr. Black said, “You’d be surprised.”
“Given the conditions, it has been remarkably calm and brotherly here,” said Clerveau Rodrigue, who has emerged as one of the camp’s leaders.
The camp vibrates with activity, including Israeli-run classrooms and International Medical Corps-staffed health clinics. Women cook and clean, sweeping the loose dirt from their tents in what seems like a Sisyphean task. Men dig drains around their shelters. Boys build toy cars from plastic bottles, with buttons for wheels. Girls fetch water, chop callaloo leaves, jump rope. Babies, naked on the ground, eat dirt.
Everything is for sale, like hair extensions in baggies and padlocks for the wooden doors that many have installed in their tarp-covered shelters. Inside a United States Agency for International Development tent outfitted with freshly made benches and a flat-screen television, one entrepreneur charges about 12 cents for screenings of a “Terminator” movie and the Malaysian kung fu film “Kinta.” Another young businessman rents out his Playstation in one of the designated “child safe” areas, a green netting atop four poles. A woman runs a bar atop a crate.
At one end of what has become the camp’s main street, Mr. François has installed himself in a makeshift City Hall, with a dozen green wheelbarrows parked outside, the camp’s garbage trucks.
“Everyone here has a problem, and they need their representative,” he said. “It’s ‘I need water, delegate. I need food, delegate.’ I have 400 trash pickup jobs to give out every day, and 5,000 people who line up to get them.”
Moving families from encampments like the Pétionville Club entails finding and preparing some 1,500 acres of land — one relocation site recently opened and another is being prepared — and then persuading people to move outside the metropolitan area, international groups say. It will be an undertaking.
“We understand we’re on private property here, but any kind of relocation is going to have to be really well planned,” Mr. Rodrigue said. “It will be like moving a town at this point.”