Place Saint Pierre

05/13/2010 09:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Peter Costantini ~ Pétionville, Haiti

Rain was general all over Port-au-Prince. It was falling last night, and the night before, and the night before that, falling on the broken National Palace, on the collapsed roofs of houses in Turgeau and on the stony green hills above the city, softly falling on the United Nations logistics base by the airport and falling softly on the whitecaps of the bay. It plunged down the gutters of the steep Route de Kenscoff in torrents powerful enough to generate hydroelectric power. It fell on the living and the dead. In the little hidden pools it formed, hordes of mosquitoes bred and emerged to torment the living. It fell on the just and the unjust. But it fell hardest on the camps.

Where the Route de Kenscoff enters Pétionville, right across from the Mairie (City Hall), the broad plaza of Place Saint Pierre became a camp for people displaced by the January 12 earthquake. Jean François Colas heard the thunder and the rain falling onto his tent there.

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"In our new life here, we try to take each day as it comes. But when it rains, it's total panic ", he said. There are no gutters. Residents have tried to dig ditches to channel the water through the camp, but sometimes it still sweeps over their tarpaulin floors and through their tents.

There's a Haitian proverb that goes: "I churn water to make butter." But it doesn't look like there's a lot of butter being made on Place Saint Pierre today.

"In the beginning some international organizations were involved in the camp. We had to get organized because the international groups wanted to have a local interlocutor to talk with." Colas and his wife got involved organizing and channeling the energies of people in the camp.

"But now with the elections coming, everything seems to have gotten political. About a month ago all the aid stopped. If you have the means, you buy food; if not, you don't eat."

Meanwhile the camp committee has nearly disappeared. Politics and selfishness have brought it down, he says. "I hate to say this to a foreigner, but here, self-interest rules. Collective needs come second. People come and say they're going to help you, but really, who's going to take care of you?"

Before the earthquake, Colas was a professional, a distance-learning technician for the education system. But for now he can't work in his field, because most of the school infrastructure was destroyed.

A thoughtful, slender man, Colas' French is as precise as a schoolteacher's. Someone brings him a chair and a stool and we sit outside by a path next to his tent. His little son McKenzie watches us cautiously.

On January 12, Colas had stepped out of a government building just off the central Champs de Mars a few minutes before the earthquake turned his life upside down.

After the catastrophe hit, he walked for an hour or more back to his home in the suburb of Pétionville. The house was gone. But his wife and children were not harmed. They slept that night in the middle of a street near their house.

The next day, he went out to find out what was happening. When he came back, his family was gone. "Someone told me she was over on Place Saint Pierre. I found her there under some sheets hung from a wall. We settled here - at first I thought it would be for a week, a few days - and tomorrow it will be four months."

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So what are the most urgent needs of the camp?

"We have all kinds of emergencies. For example, sanitation is an emergency. Shelter is an emergency. Food is an emergency."

"Schooling is a good example. As you can see, the camp is full of kids who should be in school. It's a particularly urgent need, because really it's the future of our country. I always tell my friends that when you look at the kids going by, you could be looking at the bandits of tomorrow. Because so many have nobody to tell them they love them and stroke their hair. In these conditions, I'm afraid we're training the gangs of tomorrow. And years later, they're going to say that the country has been gangsterized."

"The emergency for us is ... it's water, it's AIDS, it's food, it's public health issues everywhere. The way we live here is no kind of life."

What's the best hope to get out of this mess?

"Individual or collective?"

OK, collective.

"Well, as a group, we can maintain the illusion that there's hope, that the international community will do something. But unfortunately that's not in the cards. Because misery in this country is the bread and butter of government and a good business opportunity for the NGOs [non-governmental organization]. As a friend said recently, the state itself has been transformed into an NGO that waits for projects from abroad."

Do you know any honest, competent people in the Education Ministry, I asked him, or in other government ministries?

"This may sound bizarre, but there's loads of competence here. There are plenty of competent, qualified people. It's clan politics that breaks people, that discourages them. Good people are marginalized by the system."

"For example, in distance learning where I work, there are tons of programs like chemistry, physics, math. So last year I called my boss and said I wanted to try to do educational radio, to put some of our material on the radio. He told me, look, we really have to wait for word on that from the Ministry. We could make a decision, but then the Minister could say, 'No, that's not a priority of this government.'"

"Not long ago, a foreigner asked my wife: 'Why don't you take stock of the resources you have? I see plenty of well-trained people here, plenty of professors. What are you doing with them?' So I told him, 'Look, unfortunately, the way things are here, it's better to stay on the sidelines and leave the career-building to the arrogant and the bold.'"

When I was here in 1995, I told Colas, people had a lot of hope for the new elected government after years of dictatorship. What happened?

"Here, politicians court the people, they seduce them. They carry them away with ideas that are false and self-interested, they make them think something good is going to happen, they get them involved. And as you saw in '95, everyone is happy. But then a few months later, this leader whom everyone thought was a savior turns into a tyrant just like the others. Just like the ones he himself fought for many years. It's a tradition."

"But this time, the situation is so serious that things have to change. You can always have hope that change will come. Because this situation is impossible. Something is going to change."

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Note: To offer support and solidarity to the camp on Place Saint Pierre, please send e-mail to Jean François Colas at colfranc08@yahoo.fr.

(Tip of the hat to James Joyce.)