Fear rules the night in Haiti's tent cities

Many, especially women, live in constant fear of the ruthless gangs that roam at night, seeking easy targets under the cloak of darkness.

An aerial view of a tent city in Port-au-Prince one year after the earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.
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PORT-AU-PRINCE // The tent cities that sprang up after Haiti's earthquake began as flimsy structures of sticks, tarps and string. One year on and these squalid labyrinths are sturdier, with 800,000 survivors building wood and metal shacks for an inevitably long stay.

By day, the Caribbean sun makes latrines stink and residents shelter idly in the shade, debating unemployment, cholera and election violence. By night, they live in fear of the robbers and rapists who seek easy targets under the cloak of darkness.

Camps continue to bustle after sunset. Without proper lighting, merchants trade by torchlight and the faces of passersby pop out of the blackness. A gritty soundtrack of hardcore Haitian rap echoes from portable stereos.

"Course we ain't safe here," said Kerline Louis, 28, while watching over three young children in Jean-Marie Vincent camp, beside a slum district of the capital, Port-au-Prince. "These are tents, not houses. A rock would make a hole in them. A bullet would make a hole too."

Haitian police and peacekeepers from the United Nations mission, Minustah, monitor the 12,000 camps across the city and beyond, with beefy soldiers scaring off crooks with an arsenal of M-4 assault rifles and 9mm Taurus pistols.

Though they out-gun the gangsters, the peacekeepers bemoan weak support from Haitian officials, saying they often turn in arrested criminals to local police only to see them released from jail without charges and back in camps within days.

Maj Adilson Torigoe, a Brazilian blue helmet, knows that criminals slip away during the 30-minute camp patrols. "We know that it's not enough but we do the best we can do," he said. "Showing our presence to the population acts as a deterrent."

Ms Louis does not agree. "These guys are a joke," she said of the peacekeepers. "They would watch us getting robbed or beaten and wouldn't lift a finger. If you're not bleeding on the ground or have a gun in your hand, they don't do nothing.

"You could kill someone in this camp and get halfway across the country before Minustah would do their dumb inspection."

Mega-camps such as Jean-Marie Vincent, Petionville Golf Course and Corail, where resident numbers reach up to 50,000, are the most dangerous. They house people from different parts of the city, those evicted from other camps and convicts who fled broken jails on January 12, 2010 when the earthquake struck.

Dorcely Mackendy, 16, said gangsters and drug peddlers can easily buy guns and described a tribal rap subculture in which fans of Haiti's most popular acts, Barikad Crew and Rockfam, spot rival fans by the colour of their bandannas.

"There can be trouble between the fans of Barikad and Rockfam ... one guy pulls out a knife, another pulls out a gun and starts shooting," he said. "When the cops show up, they don't discriminate and just start whooping everybody's ass."

Sex crimes are the biggest camp problem, says a new report from the UK-based rights group Amnesty International, called Aftershocks. Rapists lurk in latrines and unlit wash areas at night awaiting victims. Others slash through tarpaulins and break into women's tents.

Rosemarie Georges does not go out after dark any more. The 47-year-old was lured into a banana plantation only hours after last year's quake while looking for her boyfriend who, unknown to her at that point, had died under his toppled home.

The businesswoman was quickly surrounded by a gang of five men wielding batons and machetes who said they had a score to settle with her boyfriend. They pushed her to the ground and beat her before a sex attack they referred to as "payback time". "They put a blindfold over my eyes. They spread my legs out, held me down and they started to rape me," she said, holding back the tears. "I was just so out of it that I not only gave in but cannot tell how long it took."

Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty's researcher, said such rapes are very common and describes a culture of fear and impunity that allows sex crimes to flourish. "The victims cry out for help, but no one comes. These guys are armed and people are scared," he said.

Eramithe Delva, 43, the founder of a grassroots anti-rape group, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (Kofaviv), has counted 459 rapes in the 22 camps she has monitored this past year but says victims see little point in reporting crimes.

Herself a rape victim, Ms Delva cites the sex attacker who tried to drag her screaming 16-year-old daughter into his tent in March, when the family was living in Champs de Mars camp, in front of the wrecked Presidential Palace.

"Thankfully she managed to fight him off," said Ms Delva. "When she got to the police station to report it, the officers told her to go and retain the man and, once he was retained, to call them and they would come and pick him up."

The UN says things are getting better - 500 new Haitian police officers will graduate next month. More than 30,000 temporary shelters have been built and the number of those living in the makeshift tent cities has fallen from its peak of 1.5 million last summer.

But Nigel Fisher, a UN envoy to Haiti, said it will be "several years" before the last remaining camp-dweller moves back into a proper home. Some tent cities are becoming a permanent "new community" in their own right.

Residents of Adokan camp say they are tired of waiting for the UN or the Haitian government to help and have formed boards to allocate plots and run the so-called "brigades" that deter criminals.

Such groupings are seen in Port-au-Prince's smaller camps, where residents mostly hail from a pre-existing neighbourhood. These better-run camps have shacks selling groceries, hardware, second-hand clothes and even barbers and beauty salons.

"It's a town, pretty much," says Edzer Rene, 33, a rapper for a popular local act, The 33rd Side, and self-styled community leader of Adokan. "We do the job of the precinct. We have to keep an eye out. We take it and give it back, like Robin Hood-types."

Men have pinched tarpaulins from aid stockpiles and provided them to camp-dwellers, he said. Others removed a solar-powered lamp from the home of a local politician and installed it in the camp to light communal areas. While nobody speaks fondly of the camps, some describe an "esprit de corps" among residents and refer to the earthquake as a leveller to the massive inequalities that existed in Haitian society, bringing down destruction on rich and poor alike.

Mr Rene says the quake "brought a lot of people together" and forged a new urban identity. Life for the camp-dwelling underclass is gritty, rough and dangerous - ideal fodder for Haiti's brand of American-style ghetto rap.

"Life in the camp, it ain't nice. It's like waking up every day to find your body on ice," raps Mr Rene, known to fans as Gravidee. "Froze, stoned to death, no blood circulating through my veins. About the hunger and pain. Watching kids play soccer while the government joke.

"We need what they got but won't give.

"How do you expect me to live?"