Mark Snyder and Ellie Happel, 14 March 2012
At two in the morning on Monday March 12th, 2012, the tents of Camp Lycée Toussaint in downtown Port-au-Prince became engulfed in flames. Within an hour, 96 of the approximately 120 emergency shelters, home to some of Haiti’s internally displaced, burned to the ground. Although most of the camp residents escaped without serious injury, the families lost the few belongings they had accumulated in the two years and two months since the earthquake. Camp residents reported that they did not have water to extinguish the fire. For months, five Red Cross water tanks have sat empty at the entrance to the camp.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. Neither the Government of Haiti nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM), responsible for camp management, has released an official statement about the fire.
Community members reported that a twelve-year old boy died in the fire. His brother died in the hospital. Their mother remains in critical condition. Many people in the camp reported suffering burns.
By Monday afternoon, camp residents reported that they had yet to receive a visit from a local or national government representative. Residents said that IOM staff came to the camp for “only some minutes” and added that they “told us nothing.”
Community organizers arrived at the site to remind the victims of the fire that they were not helpless: the Haitian Constitution and international conventions grant specific rights to the internally displaced and place a duty on the government to respect and fulfill these rights. As the organizers spoke, a small group of residents grew larger and the conversation become more animated. Residents decided to hold a spontaneous protest to call attention to their situation. Within a half hour, the residents found a bullhorn and a driver willing to use his minibus and charred shelter to block the road. They rallied their displaced neighbors to block the side street that borders the camp.
When the protestors lit a tire in the road, the Haitian National Police (PNH) arrived within minutes. They extinguished the low flame and aggressively broke up the protest. On two occasions officers leveled their assault rifles and shotguns on the crowd, forcing them to disperse. One of these incidences was recorded on video, just after the PNH officer rushed into the camp with his weapon drawn and chased a young boy who yelled of the injustice of the situation. The boy ran from the officer and disappeared through an opening in an earthquake-damaged building. Additional armed officers arrived and charged into the crowd with assault rifles, shotguns, and a teargas gun.
Camp residents commented that their entire camp can burn along with their children, and the Haitian Government does nothing. But when residents burn a tire in the street, the police respond.
In the early evening of the 12th, two members of the Department of Civil Protection (DPC) visited the camp and began to register the victims. They did not state what results this would yield.
The following day, Tuesday March 13th, IOM representatives returned to the site to distribute basic goods. Some families received flashlights, some received hygiene kits, and some received sleeping mats. Many received nothing. The IOM did not distribute water purification tablets, particularly important in light of the cholera epidemic.
The families of what was, just two days ago, Camp Lycèe Toussaint are still without shelter. For now, the families are waiting. And now they have nothing. Their possessions—saved money, clothes, bibles and books, foam mattresses and tents—are ashes.
The fire in Kan Lycèe Toussaint is not the first. Last month, a camp in a different schoolyard in a nearby neighborhood burned to the ground. Three hundred families became displaced again. In his article about Monday’s fire, Haitian journalist Pierre Louis suggested that these fires are not accidental. The political instability of today distracts attention from the flames and, says Pierre Louis, provides landowners or their political allies the opportunity to commit criminal acts and force the displaced off of camp land. Pierre Louis ends his article with the rhetorical question: When will authorities in our country stop these criminal acts and provide security to our people?
Ellie Happel is a U.S. lawyer working in Haiti with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti in support of internally displaced persons.
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