Thursday, October 14, 2010


(AOL News) - By Emily Troutman

Cabaret, Haiti - Jacques Klin is ankle-deep in dirt -- digging, singing -- with an irrepressible grin on his face. Today is a big day. Today is the day he stakes his claim.

Around him on these hills outside of Port-au-Prince, tens of thousands of people have already done the same thing. The idea might not be his, and even the dirt does not belong to him, but Klin does have the one thing everyone in Haiti seems to need right now -- a dream.

Six months ago, this land was nothing but crickets in the grass. Now, it's Haiti's new frontier, a landscape of squatters whose greatest hope is a home of their own. Gray and blue shacks and shanties extend for miles. Small gardens and homemade fences break up each plot. There are no trees or water. At the region's eastern end, a small herd of emaciated, confused horses wanders between the tents.

Many of the shacks are clustered close to the three big camps in this region, Corail, Village Blue, and the sardonically named, "Obama" camp. Despite Klin's smile, to an outsider, the hills have the look of a very odd, very grim train garden.

"President Preval says anyone can take this land," he says.

That's not the truth, of course. Which Kiln certainly knows, since his government has never given him anything of real value. But it is some version of the truth, and more than enough to hang his hopes on.

A Promise Without Backbone
In March, President Rene Preval declared that all of this land, 20 miles of hills and meadows -- from Bon Repos all the way to Cabaret -- could be taken by eminent domain.

What the president actually said was that the land could be purchased. Eminent domain is a way to force the sale of land that owners would prefer not sell. For a moment, Haitians and foreigners alike entertained this thought -- a new city outside of Port-au-Prince. They talked about new neighborhoods, with real roads. They talked about sewage systems and wi-fi.

But 10 months later, few landowners have come forward, and when they do, land prices suddenly skyrocket. Determining land ownership in Haiti is incredibly complex. When an owner dies, land rights fall equally to all of the owner's children. After a generation or two, one single acre could have hundreds of owners. In a country where the average person earns $2 a day, even comparatively small, inexpensive lots can be mired for years in family disputes.

For the international community and aid organizations, Preval's decree soon became meaningless. It was a big gesture with no backbone. Nonetheless, news of the decree trickled down to the people. While bigger minds began to sort it out in meetings, Kiln, and thousands of men like him, went ahead and decided what's theirs.

"What happened to your shoes?" I ask.

Kiln is digging a 10-by-10-foot plot with bare feet. The sun is starting to get hot. He laughs, "I don't know. I took them off! Where I'm from, this is how we do it."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from Cap Haitien," he says, with pride. Then suddenly, "Actually I'm from Cite Soleil." Then, after a cough from his friend, "We're both from Bon Repos."

He knows aid organizations only give to people if they claim to be from the community itself. The truth is: He isn't from anywhere near here. And neither is anyone else.

No Right to the Land
The truth is: He knows he has no right to this land, and neither do his neighbors.

The truth is -- amid 10,000 shacks on a mountain that was empty six months ago -- the truth doesn't matter anymore. Everyone here has agreed to the same dream, and they know that the longer they stay, the harder it will be to make them go.

Ask people along this winding highway: Who owns the land they're living on, and the answers soon become an exercise in imagination. The land belongs to a pastor, to the mayor, to their friend. A group of 21 owners donated it. The white people gave the land to us. Rule No. 1: Never admit you don't know who owns it.

The trend in Haiti right now, especially among refugee rights groups, is to oppose any evictions of displaced people. But the stories of Klin and his neighbors complicate that position.

There are some aspects of the American dream that are not American at all. For some, the Jan.12 earthquake in Haiti was a tragic end. For others, it was a new beginning. And the last best chance at a better life. These are the front lines now, a legal and moral minefield lodged impossibly between aspiration and desperation.

"I think Jesus is real and if he's alive, then I'll be alright," says Klin's neighbor, Marie, a young woman with a 2-year-old. She's a sometime-nurse and a "country girl."

"I'm OK to live outside," she says. "I don't have a house in Port-au-Prince. Anyway ... I can't take that life anymore. The camps. I can't take it."

Her tent looks out to the bay beyond the city. She has a small fence. She says she paid a local committee $6 to get on a list for a plywood shack. These thousands of shacks are not on any official list. In general, aid organizations that give out shelters without coordinating with officials are considered "rogue" groups.

A little farther up the hill, another neighbor, Alina Flerinord, has moved here with some of her nine children and 12, "maybe 15," grandchildren. They already received their shack.

"I put the window in," she says. It's a hole in the wood.

"What would you do if someone came and said this land belonged to them?"

"I'd move out," Flerinord says. "I know it's not mine. I know ... God sees everything. And I see everybody here. I see there is a problem. But, everybody's here. So I stay. No one talks about it."

Her plot is at the top of a small hill. The family supplemented their shack with two tents. Her daughter washes the dishes with a breeze in her hair, which seems to make the risk worth taking. It's unbearably nice to be outside the city.

"We hope," she says. "But I don't think anything. We hope something better happens. If the owner comes up and asks for money, we'll see what we can do."

Few Know What's Going On
For the moment, it seems likely that no one will ask her to move. There are three major camps in Cabaret, but the United Nations, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as well as the International Organization for Migration and the International Federation of the Red Cross, have little knowledge of the problem. Because it was mostly empty, this region was not originally envisioned as an earthquake-affected area.

The shelters given by Samaritan's Purse are blue and branded with their name, which makes them rather hard to miss. In a statement to AOL News, Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs, says Samaritan's Purse has given out 2,148 shelters in the area -- including 1,000 distributed through local organizations. They have been cooperative with officials, but are still seeing their shelters in inappropriate places.

"We require our partners to verify that individuals have been displaced by the earthquake and have the right to occupy the land before they build," Isaacs says.

As for providing ongoing support? That's "based on need and resource availability." As soon as a shelter is constructed, that resident owns the materials, and is therefore free to take it anywhere they like, Isaacs says.

The mayor of Cabaret, Thomas Joseph Fritz, has turned a blind eye to the problem. According to his maps, the hills may be the only hurricane-safe land in his municipality. In an interview with AOL News, the local director of Civil Protection, Louis Henry, says it is his mission to move people out of hurricane zones and into regions like this one.

But if they happen to move onto someone else's land?

"As mayor," Fritz says, "I can't afford to pay anyone to move out. We have to be able to offer people something else. I need a package to give them."

And so everyone waits.

There is a story for every shack. Even the empty ones. At noon, on a barren hillside not far from Fritz's office, a hot, sunny wind whips through a tiny gray tent. There are no shovels at work and no children here.

Silence is interrupted only by the flapping of tarps, and the nearly constant, high-speed traffic racing down the coast. Around the shelter, someone has carefully placed an outline of 87 small rocks in the dirt, to delineate their bit of land.

A man descends from his plot and hurries along a path to meet me.

"Oh, someone definitely lives there. I know the man. He's out for the day. He'll be back."

And the other empty shacks alongside it?

"Yeah, yeah, people live there, too.

"How about that one? It has three walls.

"Um. No, no one lives there."

No one could blame him for not wanting to. There is nothing here -- just tattered shelters, and a lot of people waiting for something more. This new Port-au-Prince is starting to look a lot like the old one.

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