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Things Are Difficult: A Post-Earthquake Disaster in Haiti

At first, Yvonne Jolivan does not have an answer to my question.Yvonne Julian and her son Jofte. (Photo: Fran Quigley)

Thirty-four years old, but thin and weathered and looking older, she stands barefoot in the entry to one of the many tattered tarp and plywood structures at a place called Grace Village in Carrefour, Haiti. Jolivan holds eleven month-old Jofte, the youngest of her five children, in her left arm. He reaches inside her dirty green tank top, trying to find her breast. Like almost all of the 3,000 people living in this camp for persons still displaced by the January, 2010 earthquake, Jolivan is without a job, any source of income, or even clean water and a toilet. My question is: How do you feed your kids?

She shrugs her shoulders and answers in Creole. “When I wake up in the morning, I thank God, and God knows if we are going to eat that day.” That seems pretty intangible to me, so I press for some details. When the family does eat, how do they get the food? She shrugs again. “Sometimes people ask me to clean their clothes for them, and if I receive money I can buy food for the children and go to the street to buy water.” Finally, she admits to the challenge. “Li se difisil.”  Things are difficult.

The only thing Jolivan knows when she wakes up in the morning is that her family has shelter, meager as it is. But now that is at risk, too. Things are getting even more difficult.

A Christian pastor and his church say they own the land that Grace Village sits on, and they have ratcheted up their efforts to remove Yvonne Jolivan and the 500-plus families living there. According to multiple residents I spoke with and a thirty-page petitionfiled with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, those eviction efforts have included violent, armed assaults, rocks thrown into the camp area, destruction of tents, and forced removal of many previous camp residents. The petition, filed in mid-February by three human rights organizations on behalf of the camp residents, also alleges that non-governmental organizations have been blocked from providing water and latrines for camp residents by the pastor, Bishop Joel Jeune, the president of Grace International, a church and not-for-profit corporation registered in the State of Florida.

One former camp resident, Marcel Germain, has provided sworn testimony that Grace International security guards have attacked and even killed some Grace Village residents. Other residents, speaking with anonymity, paint the picture of a reign of terror designed to push the residents off the land. Some American and Haitian human rights lawyers have witnessed Grace International security shooting guns in the camp and forcibly removing a camp resident.

In an interview, Bishop Jeune categorically denies accusations of violence, and points the finger back at the camp residents. Hundreds of former Grace Village residents have been removed from the camp to more permanent homes at a settlement called Lambi Village. Even though there are not enough homes for all the Grace Village residents at the new site, Jeune says, all of the tent dwellers can sign up for a waiting list. But the remaining Grace Village residents want money instead of a place to live, Jeune claims. He notes that some other post-earthquake camps in Haiti were disbanded in part by offers of cash for residents to move. “I don’t have a number to give you, but many, many, many of these people have their own house, and they put it for rent and they come to stay here,” he says. “They are waiting for that money.”

The destruction of Grace Village tents was conducted by Haitian National Police and United Nations troops, not by him or his staff, Jeune insists. He himself is afraid to go to the camps because the residents throw rocks at him, not the other way around. “I don’t see how I can sue anybody for defamation, but I know as Christians we have to suffer. When Jesus was trying to do good, they turned against him, too,” Jeune says.

Some of Grace International’s U.S.-based church and not-for-profit partners back up this version of the standoff. “We have seen the allegations made against Grace International, and they are inconsistent with our experiences with them, which have always been very positive,” says Chris Johnson of the Fuller Center for Housing, which partners with Grace International in the Lambi Village project. Scott Campbell, Haiti coordinator for the Vancouver, Washington-based Christian mission Forward Edge,alleges that residents have destroyed water pumps, generators, and solar panels installed for their benefit.  Campbell says he is close friends with Bishop Jeune’s son, Michael, who administers the camp. “I am for Grace International, and I’ve been there enough to see what they do,” Campbell says. “I care for the people of the tent village and know many of them by name, but they have sabotaged what has been put there for them.”

The Grace International websitetouts other partnerships, too, including with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. However, MSF’s head of mission for Haiti, Oliver Shulz, says the relationship is not ongoing. MSF has reported to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations its concerns about forced eviction of Grace Village residents, especially residents who had spoken up with concerns about camp conditions. Amnesty International issued an action alertin June, 2012, reporting that Grace Village residents were being threatened and harassed. MSF sometimes does not mind if an organization promotes a partnership, Shulz says. “But in this case, no, we do not want to be associated with it.”

Beyond the competing allegations, it was clear that the camp I visited in March did not look anything like a “model for proactive, healthy, and efficient camp management,” complete with water wells, showers, toilets, and a trash disposal system. That is the place described in the Grace International web site , which invites donationsto fund services at the campsite. Several U.S. churches and religious mission organizations have partnered with Grace and supportedits call for funds. The not-for-profit’s U.S. tax return reports $2.8 million in contributions and grants received in 2008 alone. Jeune says most of that figure represents in-kind contributions from volunteers, and expenses focus on Grace’s school and nutrition programs.

If Grace International once harbored nurturing intentions for the tent dwellers, those feelings seem long gone now.   Jeune has issued eviction notices to Grace Village residents and told me the church needs to reclaim the camp land for its schoolyard to expand. I asked Scott Campbell of Forward Edge if he agreed with the residents’ and advocates’ claim that Grace and Jeuen are waging an eviction and intimidation campaign. “Is it an eviction campaign?” he responded. “Well, they are long overdue to leave. As for intimidation, that is a strong word."

The Grace Village residents are not the only Haitians in this situation. Over three years after the earthquake, 350,000 people still live in internally displaced persons camps around Port-au-Prince, and the United Nations estimates that 20% of them are facing eviction. There is literally no place for them to go. An estimated 200,000 homes were destroyed in the earthquake, with less than 19,000 homes repaired. Six thousand new homes have been built. Even Grace International staff and supporters acknowledge the Lambi Village cannot house all the camp residents if they are removed.

Which should come as no surprise. Haiti’s housing crisis is far beyond the scope of any remedy created by a pastor or church group, even assuming all of the intentions are noble. And no non-governmental organization has the same duties of fair treatment and the provision of basic services to Haitian citizens that its government has accepted through a myriad of human rights treaties and its own constitution. So when the IACHRruledon the Grace Village residents’ petition on March 26th, it addressed its order to the Government of Haiti, not Grace International.

Responding to the evidence that Haitian National Police helped forcefully evict some Grace Village residents, the IACHR admonished the government to prevent the use of violence. The IACHR also ordered the government to ensure that clean water and police protection is provided to the residents.  The IACHR order was a preliminary measure, so Grace Village residents and their advocates hope that future rulings will address the fact that evictions have occurred without court orders. Remarkably, no resident or advocate has yet seen proof that Grace International or Bishop Jeune owns the land on which the camp is based. They also hope that future Commission rulings will address the facts that official complaints to the government about Grace International have been ignored, and that protesting camp residents have been arrested and imprisoned without warrants or charges. The Haitian Constitution and international treaties guarantee the Grace Village residents with better access to housing and services, but those promises are being ignored.

Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, one of the human rights attorneys representing the Grace Village residents, welcomed the IACHR’s focus on the Haitian government’s obligations. “Landowners (of property where earthquake victims are staying) should raise their concerns with the Haitian government and international community who have not provided adequate housing to earthquake victims, rather than waging violence against displaced communities desperate to find a safe home," she said.

In many ways, the Grace Village heartbreak is a microcosm of the post-earthquake disaster in Haiti. Global generosity offered at historic levels—one in every two U.S. households donated to 2010 earthquake relief—has yielded only lost opportunities. Aid money promised has not been delivered; money delivered has been wasted.  The U.S. government in particular ignored post-earthquake calls for rights-based development assistancethat could have empowered and improved the Haitian government, creating an enduring solution to Haiti’s problems. Instead, short-sighted and self-interested reliance on disjointed private charity has led to a new, post-earthquake, disaster all its own.

Ultimately, the important question is not whether Grace Village residents are being victimized by an abusive alleged landowner or have simply worn out the patience of a benevolent mission. The important question is whether the rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens are going to be respected. Can the world community learn from the massive mistakes made in the earthquake recovery, and do better?