From a golf course to a community

Thursday, January 28, 2010 – Globe and Mail
PAUL WALDIE AND ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

PORT-AU-PRINCE — When the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, thousands of people who had lost their homes rushed to Port-au-Prince’s only golf course, the Pétionville Club.

Today, roughly 50,000 people live on the nine-hole course in a collection of shelters made from blankets, sticks, plastic tarps and tents.

The camp could have ended up like many others across the city – dirty, disorganized and lacking food and water. Instead, thanks to the work of the U.S. Army and some determined aid agencies such as Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services, the camp functions as something close to a community.

“This is extremely organized,” said Yuri Tsitkinbaun, an Israeli aid worker organizing games for a group of 30 children to help them recover from the trauma.

Families are divided into four blocks and given tokens guaranteeing them food on a designated day. There are at least two medical clinics, several water stations and doctors who walk through the camp tending to ailments. There is a trauma expert working with children and adults, plans to build 90 latrines, and 300 U.S. soldiers who man an efficient daily food-distribution operation. None of them carries weapons. “There is no need,” Captain Jeff Zabala says. “We haven’t had one problem whatsoever.”

It’s a far cry from other camps near the National Palace and at Cité Soleil, where armed United Nations soldiers have used riot shields and warning shots to calm crowds desperate for food. Thousands more live in the foul-smelling Champ de Mars, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive’s laundry-strewn estate and the once-ritzy Place St. Pierre, whose camp boasts two latrines shared among some 6,000 people.

While the camp at the Pétionville Club functions well enough – there are even a couple of makeshift markets offering a variety of food and other goods, albeit at inflated prices – there are concerns about the long-term solution for the residents. To leave them in densely packed urban tent cities would be courting a public-health disaster. But few people are eager to move out of town, away from their lives and homes that, destroyed or not, remain important.

When the quake hit, Marie-Ange Bissainthe had barely enough time to pick up her daughters from school. Her husband died in the wreckage and she was unable to return to their badly damaged house. She went instinctively to the park.

She says it is far preferable to living in the camps downtown, with their appalling sanitary conditions and ever-present risk of violence.

Ms. Bissainthe and the half-dozen individuals who have gathered in her shelter – pine boughs knitted together and draped with coloured sheets – can’t even bring themselves to pose the question: How much longer will they have to live like this?

Instead, they laugh and use a saying that’s all too common here.

“God only knows.”

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