Geopolitics

Three Years After Earthquake, Why So Much Of Haiti Still Lies In Ruins

Camps on Port-au-Prince's Champ de Mars
Camps on Port-au-Prince's Champ de Mars
Grégoire Allix

PORT-AU-PRINCE – What’s left of Haiti’s dreams of reconstruction? Three years after the earthquake that devastated the country – one of the world’s poorest – 360,000 people are still living in displaced person camps and shantytowns. The cholera epidemic is spreading and more than 80% of the population is still living below the poverty line.

This is “an indication that the policies applied by the Haitian authorities and international organizations that intervened massively in Haiti have so far largely failed,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) wrote in a highly critical report to be presented to Haitian authorities on Jan. 24.

Devastation

On Jan. 12, 2010, 4:53 P.M., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and its surroundings. Official buildings, hospitals, shantytowns, and apartment blocks made of bad concrete were destroyed within seconds. More than 250,000 were killed and 300,000 wounded while 1.3 million homeless people had to be relocated in emergency camps.

“Things are better. In three years, 77% of people have left the camps. In a country with so many structural issues, this is a pretty good result,” says Jean-Michel Vigreux, director of the Care NGO in Haiti. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to compensate for the 250,000 homes that were destroyed, 6,500 slightly damaged houses were fixed, 4,500 new homes were built and over 100,000 transitional timber-based shelters were created.

According to the FIDH, this progress is just an illusion. “Very few long-term solutions have been offered,” says Genevieve Jacques. According to her, “the problem was just moved somewhere else, to be dealt with at another time.”

Many refugees left the camps after fixing their damaged homes themselves or building new shelters haphazardly. This has “contributed to the slum problem on the outskirts of towns.” “I saw very few real houses. The apartment buildings are even more precarious now than how they were before the earthquake, they are made of concrete blocks piled on top of each other over ruins,” says Genevieve Jacques.

“Temporary” camps

The so-called 16x6 flagship initiative is at the center of the Haitian relocation program. The program aims to resettle the residents of six large camps in their original 16 – rehabilitated – poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The volunteer families get a subsidy of 20,000 gourdes (around $500) to rent accommodation for a year or a $1,500 to $3,500 subsidy to repair or rebuild their own damaged homes.

The Haitians still living in one of the 496 camps in the Port-au-Prince region are “the most vulnerable, they're the ones who were renting before the catastrophe,” explains Genevieve Jacques. Their situation is getting worse by the day. After three seasons of rain and cyclones, the tarpaulin shelters and partially torn tents are in a sad state. Hurricane Sandy, on Oct. 24, helped turn these “temporary” camps into actual slums.

Unfortunately, the NGOs providing food, medical treatment, drinkable water and basic hygiene have already left or are about to leave, without anyone stepping in to replace them. The situation is ideal for the proliferation of cholera. Since the earthquake, about 7,800 people have already died because of this disease.

Evictions

Some of the camps’ population might leave in a more brutal manner – 20% of the refugees are being threatened with eviction from the private landowners, sometimes with the help of municipal authorities, according to the FIDH. Since July 2010, 65,000 Haitians have been evicted from their camps by force, leaving behind what little belongings they owned.

Is there any way this country can relocate its population faster? “A national program should be launched for the reconstruction and construction of social housing,” says the FIDH. Unfortunately, the Haitian government is historically very weak and doesn’t have the necessary funding. “The government has a limited capacity to act. We can’t expect much from the state; it just needs to establish standards, rules and a strategy. Nothing more,” says Jean-Michel Vigreux. “Who can afford an anti-seismic house?” asks Genevieve Jacques. “Standards are useless in the face of poverty.”

Today, the foreign aid is getting more and more scarce. The country and its foreign contributors are facing “a difficult transition between urgent disaster relief and long-term development,” analyzes Vigreux. After three years, the organizations specialized in disaster relief believe they have done what they came to do. The problem is, the country’s situation isn’t attractive for investors. And the influx of emergency funds “didn’t encourage Haitians to take charge of the reconstruction of their country,” regrets the FIDH. “The government, civil society and Haiti companies have been marginalized,” says Genevieve Jacques.

The day after the earthquake, Haitians and foreigners were talking of about the “rebirth” of a nation, instead of a reconstruction -- but it hasn’t yet begun.

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LGBTQ Plus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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