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Bitter and displaced, Haitians wait in limbo

By Amy Wilentz, Special to CNN
  • Amy Wilentz says a year after the Haiti quake, displaced survivors are frustrated, bitter
  • She describes people living in makeshift homes in camps, unable to rebuild amid rubble
  • She says much of funds for Haiti stalled; OAS report on candidates may help
  • Wilentz: Haiti needs new president for international groups to deal with it

Editor's note: Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster). She is currently at work on a new book about Haiti after the earthquake.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- There's a restless feeling in Haiti today.

With the expected release of a report on the disputed November election suggesting that the government backed candidate be removed from run-off contention, the nation may be coming closer to unlocking its future.

But in the makeshift camps, which are about to mark their first anniversary, the people are bitter and depressed.

Philippe Moise, a 58-year-old school teacher who lives in a camp that teeters delicately down the steep side of Canape Vert -- one of the roads leading up to Petionville, a wealthier town up the hill from Port-au-Prince -- is downright disgusted.

He's an engineer who taught high school chemistry and math until his school, one of the most respected in town, was broken and half flattened by the earthquake, which is called here by its onomatopoeic nickname, goudougoudou. Moise's house was fisire, or cracked, by the quake, too, so he moved into this camp with two tents for him, his wife, and two teenaged sons.

Some 150 families also live here in Camp Site ENAF 2, named after the initials of a school that was nearby. Above his tents, over time, Moise and his family constructed a "house" out of thin wooden poles, a found patchwork of metal sheets, some slightly revived rippings of old cardboard, and a few tarps donated by international organizations and now more or less in shreds.

Moise has two locks on his door, but anyone with a knife can just slash through one wall that's made of tarp material.

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Moise is a member of the camp's committee, and so is Charles Philbert, a younger man, an electrician and elementary schoolteacher. Philbert spends his time organizing the camp and searching for day work. Moise, who with other teachers managed to scrape together $300 after the quake, developed a little business selling bags of clean water for profit.

With the proceeds he bought a printing press, and with that he now has a decent, communally run business going. But he still lives in squalor because he doesn't know where to put up a new house, and he doesn't have the funds.

In the first few weeks after the earthquake, Philbert tells me from under the brim of his baseball cap, the Red Cross and World Vision came into the slapdash camp. He gestures to a sparkling aluminum-sided structure at the top of the camp. "That's the latrine they built us," Philbert says. It twinkles and sparkles in the noon sun, a silvery remnant of international aid for Haiti. "They also brought in water," Moise says.

Philbert looks up at the latrine philosophically. After the first two months, no one from the outside community came to visit the camp, and water donations ended. "We're on our own," he says.

What their situation shows is that life in the camps, where more than one million Haitians are still living, is no longer extraordinary; it's normal, even though it's not acceptable. In another situation, Haitians would have simply rebuilt their houses, but since the rubble of their neighborhoods remains more or less where it fell, they have no place to rebuild. They're stuck; the camps are like a prison.

Meanwhile billions of dollars have been promised for the reconstruction of Haiti. The racial landscape of Port-au-Prince has been changed by the number of nongovernmental organizations that have poured into the place; the population on planes flying into the capital is often more than fifty percent white and foreign.

All the nicer restaurants and hotels are filled to overflowing by excited outsiders discussing development and reconstruction over wine and pate. Yet of the money raised during the aftermath of the quake, sometimes more than half goes to fund the organizations themselves, rather than flowing out to the people on the ground in Haiti who need it.

In addition, most of the largest sums promised have not yet been disbursed, as donors await a resolution to the political crisis that's now holding Haiti hostage.

Fraud was so pervasive in the November 28 presidential and legislative elections that it took the Organization of American States a month and a half to determine who were the two leading presidential candidates, in order to set into motion the constitutionally mandated runoff election that is supposed to give Haiti someone to replace the current sitting president, Rene Preval.

That finally happened today, with the OAS suggesting that the two final candidates should be Mirlande Manigat and the popular musician Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly, eliminating from the contest the candidate of Preval's party. Now that the OAS has issued its report, Preval's government needs to decide whether to act on the international organization's recommendations or to come up with some other workable solution.

When I met this morning with Preval, he seemed to suggest that he would abide by a runoff among any two candidates. "There must be a loser," he said, "And we must offer him proof that he lost. I have no preferred candidate."

He already knew the results of the OAS report. Without a new president and government, Haiti essentially has no future, because without future guarantees, the international community has no one with whom it can work.

Indeed, the political paralysis that has gripped Haiti since the November elections has locked the whole country in a kind of refugee prison camp, where a whole nation, still stunned by the trauma of goudougoudou, awaits its future without recourse to outside help.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Wilentz.