Haiti's Naked City


Photography by Michelle J. Wong

Cite Soleil, Haiti Everybody looks the other way in Cite Soleil. The teeming tent city is the symbol of failure on every sort of scale. When you see young boys with guns tucked into their waist bands, you know something has gone wrong. When little girls are raped regularly and their families are unable to do anything about it, something has gone wrong. And when you see middle-class Haitians claim to have lost their homes in last year's earthquake so they can receive free aid from non-governmental organizations while they sell beer from their tents, it just doesn't compute. Something has gone wrong.

Confusion, frustration, desperation, anger, suspicion, fear and resignation are but a few of the predominant emotions you find in the tented city. The place feels oppressive, with the bodies of almost half a million people living between sheets of fabric, sometimes held up by flimsy scaffolding, with the flag or insignia of an NGO scrawled on them like some sort of territory marker. It's also the heat and the humidity. Even if you do nothing all day you feel grimy. And it's noisy. With no solid walls to deaden the noise between residents, everybody's business is everybody's business.

Fights, emotional outbursts, mental breakdowns, intimate conversations and cries for help echo through the camp along with the occasional laughter and banter of bitter and drunken gallows humor. The result is a pervasive feeling of high alert and suspicion. When the place turns into a sewer every time it rains you gasp in revulsion and dread. You're walking on the shit and piss and blood and tears of countless humans and animals, that spills down the hillside with every flood. If the mudslides don't get you, the water, poisonous with cholera, will. If you're not from there, people will resent you for it, because too many times the residents have heard people promise them what they will give, but never tell them what they will take.

You can see the unspoken question, What do you want? in their faces, and all the calculations they are making to get what you have, because there just isn't enough of anything to go around. So when three men snatched Michelle J. Wong from the street one morning in broad daylight and shoved him into a car, guns pointed at his head, everybody looked the other way.

The people had other things to think about and had no time or desire to assist a light-skinned, light-haired man with a camera who shouldn't have been there anyway. "I thought that was it for me," said the photojournalist, via Skype, through stolen Internet from one of the United Nations tents. Communication in the commune is, at best, fleeting. Rain and regular blackouts leave people irritated and their conversations hanging. The men shoved his head into the backseat so he couldn't see outside and no one could tell he was in the car. The ride was long and hot. They slowed down to a crawl as they hit traffic. In his heightened, near-death perception, Wong idly noted the traffic, the heat, the konpa sounds of Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, now the nation's president, coming out of the car's CD player.

The gangsters, their guns and their Creole stopped at a semi-abandoned building somewhere on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital. Roughly half of the country's structures crumbled after the 7.0 -magnitude earthquake in January 2010. Despite the initial optimism people had for building a better, more functional country. But more than a year later the ruins of the old colonial and newer but structurally inferior buildings still persist. There were other people there, Wong said, but no one reacted to the presence of a kidnap for ransom in progress. Then came the hours of getting yelled at in Creole and yelling back in Spanish and French for Wong, a light-skinned Costa Rican.

He dared not speak English, lest his captors think they had a rich American boy who was worth the effort. I'm a photojournalist. I come from Costa Rica. I'm not here with anyone. No one will pay for me. Wong tried to convince them that they were seen kidnapping him and soon they would be investigated —notions, Wong said, that didn't seem to bother them too much, if they even understood what he was saying. Only when they saw the Santa Barbara County Sheriff insignia on one of his press credentials did they seem to stop to consider the idea that maybe they had picked the wrong person.

The hours of yelling and adrenaline took its toll on both sides. Michelle J. Wong was hazy with fatigue and fear. He thought of how he might escape. He was a little surprised at how long this was lasting, how he was still alive. His mind wandered to cold beers, hot showers and Chinese food. "That's when I knew I had to survive," he said. As the day wore into afternoon, the yelling became less energetic, the jabbing with the guns less enthusiastic. One of them delivered a kick like a bored soccer player. There was nothing left to say. They pointed to the exit and Wong dashed into the hot, sticky dusk.

The poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti is a jumble of good intentions and questionable results. Its people are constantly trying to regain themselves after generations of dictators, violence and blatant disregard for human rights. Disease, poverty and natural disasters thwart attempts to get the country back on its feet.

All this is against a backdrop of pervasive mistrust between government and people, NGOs and government, people and NGOs, people and each other. Saints and Sinners Some call him criminal, some call him hero: "Junior" is a tall, soft-spoken black man with a scar on his right cheek. His eyes are permanently bloodshot, and his hand is usually clenched around a bottle of whiskey. He's 36 years old, but the growing whiteness in his beard and his hard look tell of years of hard living, of "suffering too much in this life for no reason," as his friend Rasta says in English. If you asked Junior six years ago whether he thought he would become the pimp that he is today, he would have told you no.

Six years ago he worked for the government, in a supervisory position. Six years ago he came by his living honestly and lived with his girlfriend. These days he drinks steadily, and not only because beer is generally cheaper than clean water. These days he lives in a house just minutes away from the camps, with the prostitutes that are now part of his trade. It all started for him when someone set fire to his girlfriend's business, he said through his translating friend. He showed up at the scene to help out, he said, but then he was arrested and, without a trial, thrown into the national penitentiary. It was the year and three months of living shoulder to shoulder with inmates far more violent than he that changed Junior. The grossly overcrowded prison facility packed inmates so tight they had to take turns just to sit down for a few minutes.

No place was safe for the 30-year-old who was sharing space with killers and kidnappers. "For two months I didn't step outside to go to the showers," he said. He realized the only way he was going to be able to defend himself was to arm himself, so he bought a shiv, an improvised prison knife made by sharpening a piece of metal into a point. Only when he had the weapon did he venture out to take his shower. It wasn't long before he was approached by three individuals, one armed with a machete, the other two with malevolent intentions, he said. He swung at the blade-wielding one, who swung at him, cutting his cheek and stabbing him in the shoulder. "He almost cut off my head," said Junior.

He countered with a swift stab to the neck, and the man dropped to the ground. The other two went away, and from that point on, people knew what he was capable of. He paid dearly for his action, with a punishment that Rasta describes as "being tied under the stairs," as he tries to conjure up a picture of Junior forced to lie down under the open steps of a staircase, immobilized for most of two weeks and moving only as necessary in the crowded space to eat, while enduring kicks from people using the stairs. But the punishment was worth making his statement, Rasta said, because no one messed with him after that. "If they kill you in there, nobody's going to say nothing," Rasta, a former correctional officer at that prison, said. *** It's hard for an outsider to look at a pimp and try to believe that he got into the business to help the prostitutes.

Eight to 12 whores take staggered shifts servicing their clientele in small dingy, grimy rooms at the back end of a house in Petionville, a suburb of Port au Prince. But this is Haiti, with an estimated up to 70 percent unemployment rate, and 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Lack of access to education, jobs, and recreation leave people with few opportunities to make money or to blow off steam. One day, Junior said, he saw a hooker getting gang-raped by a group of cops.

"They kicked her in the stomach and in the back," he said, explaining that they were probably attempts to keep her from getting pregnant. He couldn't do anything about that at the moment, but later rented what became his brothel, to give the prostitutes a place to do their business. Four hundred gourdes (about $10) gets a session with one of the ladies, unprotected, and they make enough for Junior to pay his rent and have a little left over.

If you hang around Junior long enough you'll find out certain things. He drinks all the time. He speaks only Creole. He's a little more formal than your average street Haitian, both in dress and manner. He dresses carefully, with collared shirts and quality leather shoes, distinguishing him from the common street thug. What makes him a good pimp also makes him a good ally: he's protective. He tends to be quiet, but has a presence that commands space and respect. In a group, he'll watch everyone's back, using his size and quiet intimidation to keep the peace. If the group leaves the room, he leaves last. If a stranger approaches his group, he greets them first. Not too long ago, he and Rasta got it in their heads that they could help their community.

They organized OPTK — Oganizasyon pou Pwomosyon Travay ak Kilti . Part service club, part chamber of commerce, the loose coalition of community members have been pooling what little resources they have to help their community. On paper, OPTK does several things: Try to aid the suffering, help artists and musicians with supplies, organize sports tournaments , and help people find work. They get on the scene in times of disaster, like the mudslides that come with the seasonal rains, and seek out those most in need of help.

What's not so official is the way they fund their activities: Junior's prostitutes, or moving into the camps to get free rations and sell beer. And possibly other activities as well. Their spending plan is just as vague, with little formal bookkeeping, but some money —the preferred form of aid, does get distributed among the needy in the camps. Some members of the organizations are — such as cops and politicians on the take, — overlooking the organization's shadier activities for a cut of the money and maybe some community sway. OPTK and other organized groups are only one layer of a complex network that stretches from government to street thug. Gangsters do most of the dirty work.

Prostitutes are supervised by more organized people like Junior and Rasta, who are the faces of the organizations and their connection to the people. At the upper level of this layer are those who have ties to even more influential individuals, like politicians. Interspersed at all levels are cops willing to look the other way. If you suggest that this network is a kind of mafia, some Haitians would agree, because to them the mafia is an organization that helps its people. *** Everywhere you turn in Haiti there's a nongovernmental organization.

The big players include UNICEF, World Vision, MerciCorps, American Red Cross. According to an interactive map published online by Humanosphere, there are almost 500 projects being conducted by more than 60 NGOs in the country, each trying to provide the many things that Haitians need: food, clean water, medicines, economic recovery, education. And those are just the NGOs that were willing to release data to the organization.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, there are at least 3,000 NGOs in the country. With so many organizations in such a small country it's disconcerting to many a weasel phrase to see that people continue to be homeless, hungry the pervasive homelessness, hunger and the waves of cholera brought on by rains and poor sanitary conditions. After the earthquake hit in January 2010, Haiti saw a surge in the aid to the ailing country, and a rather morbid optimism in the thought that the temblor provided the clean slate upon which its people could build a better, more functional country. Two and a half years later, the general performance of these NGOs, as a whole, for given the amount of money and time spent there, has been dismal, set back by a multitude of things, including violence, destructive weather and more.

Perhaps not so obvious is the disconnect between the aid providers and Haitians, who seem to play one another in an intricate dance: one organization trots out "orphans" for the media in the hopes that the attention will get donors to give them more money. There are middle-class Haitians who have houses still standing rent their homes to aid workers at prices comparable to rentals in London and Paris, then move into the camps to get free aid, we cant prove that often because they can't find work. Religion-based organizations appeal to their donors' sense of charity but only a small portion of the donation actually reaches the beneficiaries.

Voodoo-practicing Haitians deny their religion in order to be included in the Christian organizations' programs, but they still show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays to their Voodoo gatherings. "They want (things) to look bad enough to get financial assistance, but they don't want to look like they are incapable, corrupt and have no idea and/or no interest in fixing things for the long run, because then, no more money," one aid worker, "Mike," said of both the Haitian government and NGOs in general. He asked not to have his real name revealed for fear of retaliation.

The violence, of which there is much, particularly more so now that imprisoned gang members have escaped and taken back their turf since to collapse of the Haitian National Penitentiary, can justify the presence of the UN and other policing forces, but publicizing too much of the violence, he said, can make the organizations look like they are incapable of controlling the situation.

As a result, he said, various execution-style murders, the kidnappings, rapes and other violent acts go unacknowledged. "(It's) stressful and you feel like an animal caged for their own protection," said Mike, who has to take a driver from his hotel room just to pick up supplies, like potable water. "There are restrictions on where I can go and when I can be there." The bigger effect is what has become the phenomenon of "the Republic of NGOs," the sheer number of which have, in essence, set up a parallel society and government to the one Haiti already has, basically entrenching themselves in the society when what they are supposed to be doing is working themselves out of a job.

Moreover, unlike a centralized government, members of this so-called republic compete with each other for territory and funds for operations, resulting in a massive duplication of efforts. "There's a lot of waste," said Mike, citing recent news that a European NGO built several schools in the north, but when the organization's work was reviewed, it couldn’t provide a proper accounting for the projects. "They hadn't kept track of anything," he said. Supply and Demand The NGO situation has a far-reaching effect on the day-to-day economy. While Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, you can’t tell by the price of goods and services.

An average meal, say a personal pizza, can go for as much as $25 USD in Port au Prince. Why is this? For one thing Haiti's is a free market economy, where goods can be sold at as high a price as people are willing to pay. And the people who are willing to pay first-world prices in a third-world economy are foreigners, including the legions of aid workers, who reside in the city's hotels, and can get paid close to $4000 USD a month, about twice the estimated yearly wage of an average Haitian. "It happened right when we got there," recalled Direct Relief International's Haiti Emergency Response team Manager Andrew McCalla. When his group arrived shortly after the earthquake, hotels had just raised their prices to take advantage of the demand for lodging, especially in a place where buildings and homes had just toppled and living space was at a premium.

The DRI crew camped out for a while before they found a room. Other businesses, such as restaurants and gas stations, took advantage of the influx of foreigners and their demands and raised their prices as well. Not all NGOs are wasteful and inefficient. The more people you bring into the country from outside, the more you're going to spend on food, gas, wages, office and storage space, utilities, vehicles and lodging., according to McCalla. Santa Barbara, CA area-based DRI has managed to dodge the big spending by running a small, tight ship with few Americans and a largely Haitian staff? and a driver with his own car and no security.

Other outside costs have also been defrayed by streamlining its shipments with another group's so customs costs — a fact of life in a place that can only get shipments from overseas — are lower. It helps that DRI was already in Haiti for decades before the quake. It also matters that organizations like DRI are not service providers. McCalla says DRI supports service providers such as hospitals with its medical supply deliveries. Other organizations, where manpower is essential, find themselves spending more money based on where to house workers and their needs. Still, for all the effort, it still appears to suffering Haitians that the money is being spent on new Land Cruisers, upscale lodging and expensive food, while they get by on next to nothing. To some in the vast camps, it seems that the NGOs and even the United Nations are accused of using Haiti for their own gain. "Down with the occupation. Down with MINUSTAH/Cholera Down with the false reconstruction Haiti's free.

The struggle to live the Haitian people WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! ," said a July 28, 2011 letter to the public by heads of popular Haitian organizations, who blame the recent cholera epidemics and human rights violations on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. They held a sit-in and American flag-burning as part of their demonstration last week. "It's definitely not the degree of relief that the Haitian people had hoped for or deserve," said McCalla, commenting on the snail's pace of reconstruction.

Another problem is that of the billions of dollars that have been pledged for reconstruction, the vast majority has not yet been given, or made available. Perhaps it's in the long view that any progress is evident. In the 13 or so trips McCalla has made between the earthquake and now, he reports that the majority of the rubble has been cleared. Of the roughly 1.5 million people who showed up at the camps, upwards of 600,000 are left, he said. Still, the situation seems intractable. For the near future, NGOs will continue to raise money, and will likely spend a good portion of people's donations meant for Haitians to house their growing presence.

Desperate Haitians likely will continue to resort to use violence and underhanded means crime to get the money and resources that they need. But what are the alternatives? On Aug. 10, the Associated Press reported that Port-au-Prince Mayor Jean Yves Jason floated a plan to move about 20,000 people out of the camps and into the mountains, a notion that has not been well received by some of the camp residents, many of whom have shown their disapproval by demonstrating in the streets, though many have indicated they would leave if they had housing. The mayor's proposal has yet to be completed and presented, and humanitarian groups and the UN have called for a temporary halt to the evictions until better housing plans are presented.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts