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Reconstruction Zone: Chronicling Haiti's Post-Quake Struggles

“Nobody faced what we have faced here in Haiti.”

See more photos from Haiti, and what you can do to help.

“There was just a 7.0 quake right outside of Port-au-Prince. This will be a big deal.”

Two years ago today, I was the night editor for a national radio show. Around 5:20 p.m. Eastern time, the AP newswire flashed this sparse dispatch from a videographer working in Haiti, who had seen a collapsed hospital in a town up the hill from Port-au-Prince. "People are screaming for help,” the message added. Within seconds, we were calling everyone we knew with a Haitian phone number.

A colleague’s friend gave me the phone number for France Neptune, a driver for an orphanage, and I began dialing it over and over again. I was the first person to reach Neptune that night—almost all attempts to call Haiti yielded a foreboding variety of beeps. International media wouldn’t arrive until the next night, all flights were cancelled. On the phone, Neptune told me about chaotic streets filled confused throngs wandering, unsure where to go. He asked me to tell his girlfriend Mallery, who ran the orphanage and was in the U.S. on a supply run, that he was safe.

Neptune gave us a short update on the radio before dawn the morning after quake. He described the scene clearly enough but sounded dazed when asked about his plans. “I don’t know what I will do,” he said in a shaky voice that began to hint at the scale of the disaster.

By sunrise the next day, it was clear that Haiti faced a worst-case scenario: More than 200,000 people were dead, another 300,000 injured. One and half million people were left homeless, hunting for shelter, water, and basic medical care. Two years later, more than 500,000 people still live in more than 800 makeshift tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

I met Neptune and Mallery, who are now married, while visiting the still-shaken country last week. They invited me into the shipping container they're calling home while their new orphanage and apartment are built next door. “Last year was tents the whole year,” Mallery says. “So to go from tents to something that doesn’t blow in the wind is great.

The Neptunes are in better shape than most because of their connections with American donors. Two years later, they say they are almost back to where they started, able to help a tiny fraction people still living in tent camps. Like many Haitian nonprofit leaders, the Neptunes reacted to the disaster by working harder. “I like what we are doing, it’s part of my heart," France says. "It’s hard for me at the same time, because I would like to do lots more for the people, but… we can’t reach everybody.”

They have “adopted” two tent camps, as they put it, purchasing supplies and funding small medical clinics, mostly for girls. Before the quake, their work focused on the nation's huge child malnutrition crisis, but now they’re treating a new scourge: Sex crimes, they say, are a major problem for Haitian women.

Wearing multiple layers of clothes is one of the only feeble ways many girls and women try to protect themselves in a country with about one police officer for every 100,000 people. “They were begging, you know crying," France Neptune says. "And the OB-GYN doctor would want to see them, and see like 10 underwears or lots of shirts. They are afraid to get raped.”

“People are getting raped because they are still living under plastic,” says Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates humanitarian services in the tent camps. “They’re just a little razor blade away." Transactional sex is common in the camps, he adds. Some women submit to sex with a man in exchange for living closer the latrines for safety or being added to a list for social services.

Overall, reports of rape and gender-based violence have roughly tripled in the past year. A UNHCR spokesman characterized the rate of rape in the 800 remaining camps as “alarmingly high.”

One of the organizations focusing specifically on women who have been sexually assaulted is the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, known by its Creole acronym KOFAVIV. One of its workers, Claucina Jean, took me on a tour of Champs de Mars, a sprawling public plaza across from the broken presidential palace akin to Hyde Park in London or the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, the park is filled with tents and shacks.

Many of the women who live here have sought Jean's help after being raped. She knows at least 50 women in this camp who have been assaulted, and she assumes many more are staying silent. One rape survivor, Guinize Jean (no relation to Claucina Jean), tells me she was raped, an act of bravery in itself. Wearing a purple streak in her crisp braids and flashing an incongruous smile, she says she doesn’t know who raped her. When asked whether she feels safe, she flatly responds, “no," pausing to rescue a yellow terrycloth hair tie from deep in her baby’s mouth.

Another Brick in the Wall

Amid the rubble, there are signs of hope. The government has stabilized after a prolonged power struggle that left many recovery projects stalled. The battalion of aid agencies—well into the hundreds if you include smaller charities—are finding their rhythm, finally coordinating with each other efficiently enough to chip away at some of the most complex impediments to rebuilding, like relocating tent residents. Jean and her family will soon receive a years rent and assistance in finding housing elsewhere in the country.

Still, every rebuilding project comes with dozens of complications. Consider rubble removal: The United Nations Development Program is coordinating 46 agencies and the local government to clear the streets. UNDP staff took me to a rubble-clearing site in Bel-Air, a neighborhood only recently deemed safe enough for aid workers to enter. Making the area accessible required special outreach to local factions, including gangs, by aid group Viva Rio, which specializes in dangerous communities, with experience forged in the violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Viva Rio spent months working with various constituencies to let local groups choose who gets the coveted jobs, which can pay up to $9 a day. Various community leaders each got to appoint a certain number of workers, while an entrepreneurs' association chose others.

The 300 workers on the Bel-Air site work hard because they are paid by how much they carry out, the foreman says. The quake left about 10 million cubic meters of rubble, enough to fill several football stadiums. Half of that remains where it fell two years ago, yet we're watching women—40 percent of the jobs are required to go to women—carrying single slabs of concrete out to the street, a tremendously inefficient process.

The remaining rubble isn't sitting in the road like it was a few months ago, exacerbating Haiti's already-infamous traffic. The craggy heaps are trapped on steep hillsides, or—as at this Bel-Air site—behind inhabited homes with large cracks in the walls, clearly unsafe in the event of another quake. The final alley to this site is so narrow, not even a wheelbarrow can pass. The bricks must be carried out by hand, bucket by bucket.

One problem is that crews can’t knock down half-broken houses without authorization from the owners, a tricky proposition considering the quake's death toll. On this site, all nine family members were crushed, and finding a living heir to authorize demolition poses a huge challenge.

You can’t just dump football stadiums worth of brick in a vacant lot, either: Crushing the debris and re-using it requires an elaborate plan from a U.N. support agency. Cracked houses must be transported to special machines on the edge of town, which can only run part-time because the wind blows too much dust over the city. “Now, as you can see, we are really efficient,” says Jean-Sebastien Roca, a UNOPS project manager, gesturing toward two mammoth machines grinding rubble to dust for recycling.“It took time to understand,” he says. “Nobody faced what we have faced here in Haiti.”

A Home and a Job

Most of the people still living in tent camps are the poorest of the poor—those with no other options. The government has instituted what it calls the 16/6 plan, which calls for residents of six of the largest camps to be resettled into 16 neighborhoods that will be redeveloped. Some 30,000 residents are being offered financial assistance equaling about one year’s rent to move, a plan funded and coordinated in large part by international aid groups. Many outside observers are nervous about what will happen in a year when many of these vulnerable residents may find themselves unable to pay their new rent.

Relocation efforts often move residents beyond the borders of Port-au-Prince, to rebuilt villages or suburban neighborhoods. Camp Corail, which sits in a vacant desert 10 miles outside the capital, is the most ambitious relocation project, home to more than 10,000 people and growing. Corail is the country’s only official settlement, with plywood two-room homes neatly laid out on a grid.

Many of the residents arrived here when flood preparation and drainage construction forced them out of J/P HRO, one of the largest tent camps, which was run by Sean Penn’s charity. Other Corail residents came here hoping that a more formal camp would mean more reliable services. The government has touted an agreement to build a Korean factory nearby that would create 20,000 jobs, but it hasn't happened yet.

Last month, a conference organized by the Inter-American Development Bank courted international businesses to set up shop in Haiti. In addition to the much-awaited Korean garment factory, other multinational corporations are exploring setting up shop in the country. An industrial park currently under construction is expected to bring 80,000 jobs near Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second-largest city.

“I’m really hopeful,” says Patrick Dessources, a local representative of investment firm Root Capital. “2012 is going to be the year that will define Haiti, the year that will tell us, five years down the road, will we be better or not?”

France and Mallery Neptune are also upbeat in their cozy shipping container. They’ve received plenty of donations to rebuild the orphanage and make it bigger and better than it was before the quake. The new building will house about 25 kids and allow expansion of a business-training program for mothers who can’t afford to feed their children.

The orphanage rebuilding project, like many successful recovery efforts in Haiti, melds foreign generosity with local capacity-building. Today, some businesses are able to get loans and investment, foreign companies demonstrate some interest in setting up shop, and nonprofits like the Neptunes' orphanage are doubling down on their commitment to the poorest nation in the hemisphere. Six billion dollars in aid was pledged to Haiti after the quake by a mix of foreign governments and international charities, just over half of which has been spent. That won’t cover the $7.8 billion in damage caused, but it does mean there are still billions of dollars more in the pipeline for years of more recovery work. Most Haitians know that things were so bad before that there is a chance that the long, painful road toward recovery could make Haiti better than it was before the quake.

At Camp Corail, the U.N. Population Fund has installed solar streetligh, which don't entirely solve the safety issues they were designed to address. Corail resident Evette Pompiles likes the lights, but told me through a translator they don't make it safe in the camp. She still doesn’t go out at night, choosing to stay in her candlelit home. Another group of residents expressed anger that goes beyond the lights—one man said he felt like they were left to live like dogs. There’s no work 10 miles outside the city in a desert, no natural food source, and no commerce. The residents say they’re going to wait it out.

I left the camp at dusk, just before the vaunted solar street lights would turn on. Staring up the sandy hill, through this refugee Levittown of houses the color of dust, a few barely tended sunflowers stalks offered the only spots of color. The backdrop was a bald mountain, shaved of trees, scarred with landslides. There is hope here, because the camp could become a city with jobs if the factory manifests, but it also seems sadder than many of the more haphazard camps in the city. This place had lasting sadness because, unlike the other camps, it looks permanent.

Photos by Alex Goldmark

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