Looking back

I always wondered how the mango tree holds up its fruit
Heavily suspended in the air
Barely swaying but never quite still

Chay la lou, my burden is heavy
But I will carry it high on my head

There is a story of Haiti that only few will know

When the heat becomes unbearable
There is refuge in the sweet mango scent
And succumbing to thick, flowing juices filling your mouth

You would think a fruit so sweet and juicy
Does not belong in a place like this
But I have learned, it is the only place to find them

Madam Fransik, poto mitan, stretches tall from limbs of trees
Taking on the personality of she who will carry her
On the crown of her head, high up where she belongs

She grows while hanging from the branch
Finding the strength to be invincible
Knowing there are few things as delicious

The frail branches clasp gracefully beyond belief
And let go only when the mango is so ripe
that the sun has brewed the juice and turned the skin dark

But sometimes the loas dance in the wind and cause their early fall
And the children gather their remains from the ground
Rolling the mass between small hardened hands
Softening the flesh, releasing its juices

140 kinds and the world knows none
But I, was lucky to once learn the joy
Of picking a sun-warmed mango from the ground
And drinking out its juices till only its skin remained

Shriveled, empty, but dignified for what it once was

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Too many serious blog posts so far. There are also lots of awesome things happening in Haiti. Mango season is one of them.

And the only thing better than a sun ripened, juicy Haitian mango…

is mangoes AND KITTENS


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Watching government officers destroy tent camps

On a small side street away from the public eye, a woman stands amidst debris.  “Leve, leve!” she screams, reenacting for me how the police woke her in the morning, yelling at her to get out before they cut down her tent.  Next to her, a panicked man is twirling in circles, collecting what is left of broken tiles lining a dirt floor.  They both lost their homes in the earthquake and have been living in neighboring tents with their families since January 2010. Wednesday morning, the police showed up unannounced and violently destroyed their shelters, leaving them homeless again.

At least three camps housing approximately 1,000 Haitians displaced from the earthquake were destroyed by police this week in the Delmas suburb of Port-au-Prince, just two weeks after Michel Martelly was sworn in as Haiti’s new President.  The police came with little to no warning and bulldozed through the camps, slashing tents with machetes, knives and batons.

The forceful evictions took place under the direction of the Mayor of Delmas, Wilson Jeudy.  In fact, Mr. Jeudy was there in person, and we confronted him about what was happening.  He justified his actions, saying “it’s time for the public to reclaim public land.”  With over 680,000 earthquake victims still living in 1,000 overcrowded displacement camps, however, it is difficult to see why vacating public squares is the most urgent priority.

The evictions carried out this week constitute a blatant and unjustifiable violation of Haitian and international law. Haitian law mandates that evictions can only be carried out pursuant to a court order or a municipal decree, and as in the United States, they must be conducted in accordance with rules designed to ensure fair process. In this case, the government carried out evictions without adequate notice or authorization, and used violence and intimidation to force people out.

When asked whether he had followed the legal process for evictions, the Mayor responded nonchalantly that he did not need legal authorization.  Besides, he contended, those living in the camps all have bèl kay, or pretty houses, elsewhere.

After leveling the tents by Delmas 5, the Mayor and police continued down the road to Delmas 3 to close a camp where hundreds of families were living crammed into a public square.  According to residents’ accounts, authorities had come the day before to inform the community that they would be evicted the following morning.

When we arrived on the site, the area resembled one swept out by a tornado.  Residents watched in horror as men in shirts reading “The Mayor of Delmas in Action” were clearing away the little that remained of their lives.

Destroyed Tent Camp in Delmas 3. Photo by Etant Dupain

This recent series of evictions began on Monday, when the police came and destroyed a camp in Carrefour Aéroport, a busy intersection by the airport.  Those who protested were beaten by the police with batons. One man was shot in the leg.  He continues to sleep in the area, taking shelter under a monument, as do many other families from the camp.  His situation underscores the obvious truth the Mayor and others refuse to accept: that if those displaced by the earthquake had somewhere else to go, they would have left the camps long ago.

The communities evicted this week are working with lawyers, advocates and other camp communities to organize in protest.  They are filing complaints, denouncing the evictions in press conferences, and demonstrating in the streets and in front of government offices.

Others are also speaking out against the evictions.  They include human rights defenders, grassroots groups, and members of the U.S. Congress, who released a statement Thursday deploring the evictions.

“It is mind-boggling that any government official would condone or ignore [the evictions] during a time when Haiti is seeking to recover from the crisis stemming from the January 2010 earthquake and the subsequent sluggish rebuilding process. Facing hostile conditions, including adverse weather, violence, and disease, shelter and work are the priorities for every displaced Haitian and must not be compromised,” four Members of Congress said in their joint statement.

Nigel Fisher, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Haiti, sent a letter to President Michel Martelly’s office, requesting urgent action to stop forced evictions.

This same week, President Martelly announced his 100-day plan for resettlement, which centers around the closure of six camps on public land, including two in Petionville, Port-au-Prince’s wealthy suburb that sits in the hills above the city.  The plan includes resettlement packages for residents, but does not commit to ensuring that the camps will remain open until adequate alternative housing is secured for the residents.

The latter part is especially distressing in light of the forced evictions from both public and private land that have been taking place since just weeks following the earthquake.

Due in large part to government inaction and a widespread failure to protect the displaced, the International Organization on Migration (IOM) estimated that 166,000 people were facing imminent threats of eviction as of April, representing one fourth of the displaced population. In Delmas 5, residents noted that the eviction marked the first time the Mayor or any other government representative had come to the camp since the earthquake.  In Carrefour Aéroport, another woman proclaimed in frustration “I voted for Martelly to see change — is this what I get?”

Around Port-au-Prince, billboards proclaim Martelly’s election a Viktwa pou pèp la, a victory for the people.  After a year of unspeakable hardship, President Martelly’s new leadership in Haiti has given many hope for a different course. The last week’s brutal evictions by government officials throw this into question.  To demonstrate a commitment to the people and the rule of law, President Martelly should formally denounce the extrajudicial evictions and declare a moratorium on evictions until a return and resettlement plan is adopted that provides displaced communities with alternate safe and adequate housing.  He should also instruct all government agents, including mayors and police, to follow legal procedure in conducting any evictions.

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A love for Haiti…

I’ve been pretty useless at blogging lately, but wanted to share this awesome post by Nancy Young, a volunteer for IJDH.

A couple of weeks ago at this time, I was smiling insanely into my cell phone, saying to a Haitian friend, “Dis jou! Dis jou!”

10 days, 10 days to Haiti.

Not quite.

With twa jou to Haiti (3 days), the same friend, seeing sometimes violent protests over disputed election results told me that the situation was too unpredictable and he did not want me to be in danger.  I knew, too, that if things did get really bad, my Haitian friends would be less safe themselves if they had to pay attention to protecting me.

It put a hole in my heart, but I knew I had to cancel the trip. First I took a swig of Haitian rum and went for a walk. Then, feeling very sorry for myself, but trying to follow the example of my Haitian friends, I buried the disappointment and tried to think what I could do instead to get my Haiti fix.

Which is why I’m writing this in the IJDH office in South Boston, where I’m volunteering for a few days.

This would have been my ninth, maybe tenth trip to Haiti since I first went in April of 2009, something which has my friends and family a little bemused.  Recently, when I was still beaming about my upcoming trip to Haiti, a new colleague  said, “You seem to go to Haiti a lot. It’s…weird.” Then he added, “Do you go to do good deeds?”

“Uh…ok, yeah,” I said, because it was truer than it was not – and it’s one of the few basic story lines that people who don’t know Haiti immediately understand (or think they do). One goes to Haiti to be a do-gooder, to help those poor, tragically dysfunctional people. It’s an easy story line but it completely sells out the Haitian people.

I remember once speaking at a church after my first trip to Haiti and part of my talk was extolling how wonderful Haitian food is. I was chided by a missionary afterwards who told me, “We don’t go for the food. We go because the people are poor.”  I smiled through clenched teeth at her and we stood uncomfortably for a moment in a moral superiority standoff.

Even though it’s a simple concept, it’s harder for people to understand when I say, as I always do, that I go to Haiti because it is my home. Seemingly nuts because, due to job and money constraints, I can rarely spend more than 10 days at a time there and I speak Haitian Creole at a toddler level.  When I go, I try to sneak in a trip to the beautiful  public beach where I visit friends  and eat some pwason fre (fresh fish) deliciously spiced with garlic, onions and citrus (at least I think those are the flavors, I can never replicate the flavors at home.)

So, when I’m not there, which is most of the time, I feel a bit like I’m in exile. And, yes, I also want to do good deeds for Haiti, but for me that generally means fighting, with every choice I make in and outside Haiti, the extraordinarily vicious double standards that exist between the rich country I live in and the poor country that I call home.

To understand the way I feel about how those double standards play out in every minute of the lives of my Haitian friends, you’d have to picture your best friend, or perhaps the person you most admire most in the world for their intelligence, wit or just plain goodness. Then picture that person unjustly imprisoned or, ostensibly free, but jobless. Or sick from bad water.  Picture all that intelligence, wit and just plain goodness glossed over in a favor of a stereotype of helplessness and inferiority.

It is hard to picture that for many of us in the U.S., but in Haiti just about everyone is at risk. So, inextricably wrapped up in my love of Haiti is my anger over what the people there go through.

Which is why I’m here at IJDH in decidedly colder Boston, witnessing a bit of the good work that goes on here every day that is all about justice and respect for the sunny, troubled country I love.

To learn more about the work I’m doing in Haiti and for opportunities to get involved, visit http://www.haitijustice.org.

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On the Anniversary of the Earthquake…

Haiti has a way of breaking your heart and making you whole all at once.

On January 12, I stood among thousands of Haitians who had come to the ruins of the National Cathedral to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and mourn those they lost.

Many had come from their displacement camps, dressed in pressed immaculate white clothes, little girls wearing giant ribbons in their hair. I can only imagine the pain they carried, yet so many paused in their mourning to smile at me, to show me a way around the crowds, to express their appreciation for my broken Creole.  This is how Haitians are – endlessly giving even when everything has been taken away from them.

Edwidge Danticat’s reflections in the New Yorker capture the resilience that I find endlessly inspiring:

“In Haiti, people never really die,” my grandmothers said when I was a child, which seemed strange, because in Haiti people were always dying. They died in disasters both natural and man-made. They died from political violence. They died of infections that would have been easily treated elsewhere. They even died of chagrin, of broken hearts. But what I didn’t fully understand was that in Haiti people’s spirits never really die. This has been proved true in the stories we have seen and read during the past year, of boundless suffering endured with grace and dignity: mothers have spent nights standing knee-deep in mud, cradling their babies in their arms, while rain pounded the tarpaulin above their heads; amputees have learned to walk, and even dance, on their new prostheses within hours of getting them; rape victims have created organizations to protect other rape victims; people have tried, in any way they could, to reclaim a shadow of their past lives.

The last example refers to organizations like KOFAVIV – Commission of women victims for victims – one of the grassroots groups we work closely with and whose cases we pursue in court.  The victims who come through our doors range from age 4 to 60.  One is a grandmother whose family has suffered three generations of rape. She and her daughter are victims of politically motivated rape during the 2004 coup, and her granddaughter – just five years old – was raped after the earthquake.  After having translated her affidavit containing the crimes they suffered, I unexpectedly met the little girl at our office. The sudden transition from a legal recital of fact to real life was too much, and amongst the uncountable human rights violations we encounter on a daily basis, her story broke me. I had to excuse myself to wipe away tears that I felt were not mine to shed.

But in the midst of such indescribable suffering, these women refuse to give up and are fighting for a different life. 3,000 members strong, they have organized security brigades in the camps to accompany women to latrines at night and to intervene against perpetrators when the police is nowhere to be found. They serve as agents in 22 camps, helping victims to the hospital, to KOFAVIV for psychosocial support, and to our office to pursue the perpetrators in court. And when members of KOFAVIV come together, they sing songs with such strength, you can feel the roof lift above.

That is the contradiction of Haiti.  The suffering sometimes seems endless, but so does the strength. Beyond the heartbreak, Haiti is endlessly inspiring, empowering, and humbling.

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Haiti Must Have Fair, New Elections

Article printed in the New York Daily News, Dec. 8, 2010.

Haiti’s democracy suffered a double blow last week. The first was on Sunday, Nov. 28, when pervasive fraud denied hundreds of thousands of Haitians the right to participate in electing a new government.

The second occurred when observers from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, both founded on the noble principles of supporting democracy, security and development, dismissed the widespread outcry of both candidates and voters and validated the elections.

These elections, coming on the heels of January’s earthquake and last month’s cholera outbreak, are among the most important in Haitian history. Voters were scheduled to choose a president, an entire House of Deputies and one-third of the Senate. These officials will have the responsibility of guiding Haiti out of the rubble.

Read the full article here: http://nydn.us/hikxmJ

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Cholera in the Saint Marc Prison

We’re led through the courtyard past the cell where the women are held, the sun beating down around us.  I catch glimpses of people sitting on turned over buckets, peering back at us through thick metal bars.  I don’t yet know what proper prison etiquette is: do I greet them with a smile to acknowledge their humanity, or does this disregard the horror of their situation?

Photo Credit: Unknown

The cells are brutally overcrowded: this one holds 18 prisoners in a space 8 ft by 10 ft, a worst-case scenario for rapid spread of cholera.  It’s not until I get home that I let my mind ponder the details of the every-day reality of living in indefinite confinement with 17 other people in a space the size of my kitchen.

80 percent of prisoners in Haiti have never been convicted of a crime, and I wonder what set of misfortunes caused these women to end up here.

There are 411 prisoners in the Saint Marc prison, living in about 20 cells. Cholera was first reported here last week, and now there are 24 suspected cases.

A prison officer shows us the makeshift cholera ward, where those who have fallen ill are kept in quarantine in the far corner of the prison.  The first cell holds those who are under observation.  They are separated from those with full-blown symptoms, who lie in a different cell on beds with holes cut out of them and buckets underneath.  They look tired, exhausted, lifeless.  IV rehydration bags provided by Partners in Health are suspended from the ceiling, and a nurse, another inmate who volunteered to look after the sick, sits at the front of the room.  I don’t know if she has professional training, but at least she’s there.

As one of their key cholera strategies, Haiti’s Ministère de la Santé Publique et de la Population (MSPP) has developed a communication campaign that includes a series of posters that demonstrate various ways to prevent cholera.  Colorful cartoons illustrate the importance of washing fruits and vegetables with treated water and disposing of fecal matter and vomit in latrines.  These posters hang on the walls of the prison courtyard, but it’s hard to see what purpose they serve here other than to emphasize the stark gap between that which is needed to prevent cholera, and the government’s neglect to provide it.

Here, prisoners are forced to defecate in buckets in their cells.  I wonder if these are the same buckets that serve as their chairs.

The prison warden explains to us that they have no clean water.  The water that is pumped up in the courtyard comes from the Artibonite River, the source of the cholera virus.  They use Aquatabs to treat it, which makes it clean enough to bathe in without getting skin rashes, but not safe enough to drink.

Clean water and sanitation are the two fairly simple measures that prevent cholera; in Haitian prisons, neither is available.

In the prison office, which smells unmistakably of chlorine, an old blackboard displays the prison inventory.  There are 379 men and 18 women.  192 of the men and 6 of the women are serving out their sentences.  The others, making up half of the population of the prison, are being held in pre-trial detention and have not been convicted of any crimes.

White scratchy letters at the bottom of the board tells us there has been one death.  They tell us he fell sick from cholera and allegedly refused treatment.  His pre-trial detention turned into a death sentence.

Within the walls of the prison, the government’s complete disregard for human life is undeniable and inexcusable.  Whatever magnitude and resource challenges may excuse the failure to contain cholera outside the prison are obsolete here, in this confined space under complete state control.

In the oppressive heat, my anger simmers.  The state, who took these people into its custody without process or a means to challenge their detention, has a heightened responsibility to ensure their health and safety.  But instead, prisoners are fed contaminated water at the hands of the state, and no investments have been made into even the most basic infrastructure that ensures sanitation and protects the dignity of those imprisoned.  As of November 20, 19 prisoners have died of cholera in four prisons around Haiti.  Many of them had never had a trial, and cholera is the only sentence they have received.

As we leave the prison, Mario stops visitors outside the entrance to ask them to make sure that the food they give their relatives is well-cooked and clean.  For now, it’s the best we can do to protect the health of our clients inside.

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