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Wednesday 11 December 2013

Nearly 4 years after quake, Haitians still in tents

A young woman prepares food on November 1, 2013 at camp Acra in P├ętion-ville, Haiti, where victims of the January 2010 earthquake are living in makeshift tents. AFP/Louis-Joseph Olivier

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Eight-year-old Widlene Gabriel has lived nearly half her life in a camp for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the devastating January 2010 earthquake in desperately poor Haiti.

As the fourth anniversary of the disaster approaches, more than 170,000 Haitians are still living in makeshift housing, in extremely precarious conditions and sometimes facing eviction.

Widlene and her family live in a tent on a private lot along a main road linking the capital Port-au-Prince to the eastern suburb of Petionville.

The girl has never been to school and spends her days staring blankly at cars and trucks speeding along the road nearby.

"On January 12, 2010, the roof of our house fell on top of our heads. I wasn't hurt but our house fell apart and so we came here," Widlene recalls, her bare feet covered in dust.

Manette Nazius, a mother of six, says Widlene is hardly the only child seemingly left behind.

"All the kids here are in the same boat. All days are the same. They drag around all day. In fact, we are living without hope and we all feel abandoned," she says.

An estimated 250,000 people were killed in the quake, and the rebuilding process has been slow in Haiti, which was already one of the world's poorest countries when disaster struck.

In the immediate aftermath, more than 1.5 million people were homeless.

Huddled under Tent 15, which doubles as a church at the entrance of the camp, a small group of women chanted "Blessed be the lord. Blessed be the lord."

The pastor, in his 60s, stood at the entrance, but the faithful were few.

"We still support them in prayer," said the 60-something pastor, who gave his name as Pierre.

"They are people who have been abandoned by the authorities. They have nothing. But God does not punish twice."

Nevertheless, the young and homeless say they are without hope and feel they have been forgotten.

"No life"

Since 2011, the government has been able to relocate more than 60,000 families and take back some of the public spaces occupied by the unsanitary camps.

But about 172,000 people still live sprawled across 300 camps, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Residents of the camp where Widlene lives say they have no alternatives, surviving thanks to odd jobs and whatever food scraps they can gather.

"We live like brothers and sisters. We help each other out but we don't expect anything from the government," said Bladimir Eliancy, a 30-something resident who was trained as a mechanic.

At another camp – a group of tents were set up on a property once owned by the Italian mission – the feeling of despair is the same.

"We have been forgotten by the authorities and international organizations no longer visit us," said a dejected Donald Duvert.

"Sometimes, we get angry. But we are good citizens. We don't go out into the streets to attack the rich. But just take a look at how we live," he added, pointing to the dilapidated tents that house 150 families.

Joseph Gino, seeking a bit of shade under a mango tree, echoed Duvert's hopelessness.

"Before, life was very difficult for us. Today, there is no life. Only God knows when we'll get out of here – or maybe the decision-makers do," he said.

A mother with a four-year-old son born in the camp added: "At this time of the day, nobody can stay under the tents. The children are suffering from the heat under the tarps."

The boy has never slept in a bed or in a real room.

But some still hold out hope for a better future by advancing their studies to lift themselves out of decrepit poverty.

"I am a little bit behind, but it's my only exit," said 18-year-old Fabienne.


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