Hope still a challenge in Haitian tent camps

Amputee’s plight emblematic in devastated nation

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By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For weeks now, the rumors have leapt from tent to tent, passed from one bedraggled survivor of the earthquake to the next. They would be expelled, driven into the streets by tractors. When, nobody knew for sure. But it would be soon.

Worry and resignation are plain in the misty eyes and slumped shoulders. Haitians have endured a hurricane, election upheaval, the threat of cholera — and now this.

So far none of it has broken Reginette Cinelien, 14, but this feels as if it could. She has spent more than 300 nights on this rutted soccer field, making do in one of the dozens of tents turned drab and limp by the alternating punishment of rain and sun. She lost her left leg to the quake, crushed by a cascading wall. A small mission from an artificial limb company in New Hampshire made her a prosthetic leg in March, optimistic they could spare her the ostracism that befalls amputees in this country.

The leg’s not such a good fit anymore, but that hasn’t kept her from using it all day long. It is the prospect of being forced from the camp — first broached by leaders of the soccer field — that seems too much.

“I don’t sleep at night, thinking about where I will go,’’ she said, dainty fingers knit pensively. “I’m not an animal, to ship me out of the camp like this.’’

Eleven months since calamity laid waste to this impoverished capital city, the story of Reginette Cinelien is the story of Haiti. More than 1 million of the dispossessed remain mired in tent camps, big and small. The horrifying novelty of catastrophe — and, with it, the global spotlight and legion of volunteers — has ebbed, replaced by a grim grind.

There are few signs of progress to match the billions in international aid. Good intentions have proved hard to sustain: The Manchester, N.H., prosthetics team, pinched by the demands of work at home and the tribulations of working in Haiti, made limbs for Reginette and 11 other amputees, but none since the spring.

“Failure is easy in Haiti,’’ said Dennis Acton, whose wife’s family owns New England Brace Co., the company that built the legs. “Everywhere you look, people are having difficulty trying to get things done.’’

Forced to leave
Pierre Michel Tanis, the wiry, canny president of the neighborhood soccer club, founded the camp where Reginette lives. He paid for water from his own pocket in the hours after the quake. He scoured the streets for medicine to save lives.

It has fallen to him to execute the dismantling of the refuge, now that the owners of the field want the land back and soccer teams clamor to resume play.

“The land doesn’t belong to me,’’ he explained one day in November. “The last meeting I had with the owner, four or five months ago, he said we have to move out.’’

“We have an obligation to kick them out,’’ he said.

The camp’s population has already shrunk from well above 1,000 to barely 700, and conditions have deteriorated. A hillock of rotting garbage rises at the entrance.

There used to be a camp doctor. There used to be help for Reginette and the other amputees with new legs. There used to be parties to keep spirits up.

“Those things disappeared,’’ said Reginette’s mother, Rosemaine Cius.

Her right foot was swollen, the smallest toe nearly the size of the biggest. She was hauling debris for a US government agency when she stepped in fetid water. She thinks something bit her foot. It had been like this for weeks.

“We survive,’’ her mother said.

On weekends, Reginette reclines listlessly on a cot, marking time by the sun. Marking time until 8 a.m. Monday, when she returns to the place she values most, to school.

School as a haven
One morning last month, Reginette and 28 other students crammed into a classroom made from plastic and tin and two-by-fours, which sits behind a guesthouse for Catholic missionaries next to the soccer field. Tanis and other leaders of the tent camp started the school, which now has more than 250 students, in late spring. For Reginette, it is both haven and beacon.

“I can learn something,’’ she said. “I will have a better life.’’

In Reginette’s class, children sang: “We have dreams. Dreams so beautiful. Up there on the hill. The hill with birds.’’

There was something different about Reginette’s eyes that morning. They had turned from vacant and remote to intense, steely. She shared a bench with six other girls, attending to a geometry lesson. The eraser on her pencil was worn to nothing. She appropriated the nub that remained on a classmate’s pencil.

Many of the girls wore ribbons in their hair. Reginette had a different fashion concern. She made sure to wear long pants to conceal her prosthetic leg. That way, maybe children who came to the school from outside the camp wouldn’t know her secret.

At first when she received the leg, she was tentative, regarding the plastic and metal device as alien. But moxie trumped doubt, and now Reginette wears the leg nearly all the time.

She tries to walk fluidly. A stutter step betrays her. During recess, she hovers in the shadows, watching as other children skip rope and whack soccer balls.

Acton said from New Hampshire that he’s working on getting her a new, better-fitting limb by collaborating with an aid agency. He has visited Haiti nine times, with his efforts now focused on trying to create jobs for the amputees.

On one trip, he brought a chunk of foam to create a cosmetic covering for the exposed metal pylon of Reginette’s leg. Reginette had been distressed by its metallic appearance, so Acton used a hacksaw and sandpaper to make the covering.

“We knew how self-conscious Reginette was about it. We understood that,’’ Acton said. “Any teenager would be.’’

In school the subject at 10:30 was Haitian history. The instructor was a lean, handsome man of stern countenance named Joseph Josué. Students were summoned to recite history they had been required to memorize from texts published in 1942, with only nominal updates.

Reginette’s answers were confident, correct. Other students, not so assiduous, cowered as the teacher ordered them to turn their faces toward the wall in shame. Some he dismissed entirely.

Classes continued until 1 p.m. Then tutoring began. Some days, Reginette attends three tutoring sessions, extending past 5.

Tuition at the school is a few dollars a year, but tutoring costs extra. Josué, who lives in a tent near Reginette’s, told her mother not to worry about paying, to give him money when she can.

“Reginette,’’ he said, “wants to go to school to help her family come out of poverty.’’

1.3 million displaced
That family — Reginette, her mother, and 5-year-old sister Francesca — has no apartment to return to, no relatives to provide shelter in Port-au-Prince. Reginette’s father, last seen by her the morning of the quake, is presumed among the more than 200,000 who died. Her 9-year-old sister also perished.

It was in October, Reginette’s mother remembered, when they first were told their departure from the camp was imminent. Someone came to each tent, she said, telling them the owner wanted the land back.

Tanis, the soccer club president, provided the Globe with a phone number for a man he said represents the owners. That man agreed twice to meet a reporter at a Port-au-Prince hotel but failed to appear. He did not respond to e-mailed questions.

Acton said late last week that he is trying to broker a deal for a small patch of land where houses could be built for Reginette and other amputees.

Sister Mary Finnick, the sprightly nun who runs the guesthouse abutting the soccer field, vowed that the tent dwellers — especially the disabled — will not be cast out on the streets. Donors, she said, are eager to construct houses.

“They just can’t get through the bureaucracy,’’ said Finnick, deep in her 70s. “It’s like an onion.’’

Government and aid agencies, which have already built some temporary housing, have ambitious plans to build much more — if they can find the land. First, rubble must be cleared. It has been estimated by engineers that there’s enough detritus in Port-au-Prince to fill dump trucks stretching half way around the world. Removal is painstaking: Heavy equipment can’t travel down twisting, pocked streets, and work must proceed gingerly, given the human remains and personal valuables that remain entombed.

There are issues, too, with structures that weren’t destroyed. The earthquake, and consequent housing shortage, exposed weaknesses in Haiti’s land system decades in the making. Port-au-Prince is a city of renters, but there’s often no certainty the person you rented from actually owned the property. That complicates resettlement.

So striking the tent camps will be a daunting proposition. To an outsider, life in an encampment seems a shambling existence. And, in many respects, it is. But in post-earthquake Haiti, some camps — even those more wretched than Reginette’s — offer amenities previously scarce here: free education, free meals, free medical care. They have become communities unto themselves, with beauty shops and food stalls and even discos — and no rent.

Aid agencies predict some camps — especially the big ones — may turn into permanent urban slums akin to the city’s Cite Soleil shantytown. Even if people do leave, there’s no guarantee they will find a place to live.

“This is the largest urban displacement ever,’’ said Paul Weisenfeld, a senior executive at the US Agency for International Development. Even if 200,000 or 300,000 people are resettled, he said, “when you have 1.3 million displaced . . . you don’t even notice it.’’

In Reginette’s tent, where the floor is dirt and the cots are shared by more than a dozen adults and children, the future is regarded with trepidation.

At this time of year, dusk descends swiftly. There are no lights on the soccer field, save for the ruby glow of charcoal grills. By 6 p.m., most of the people of the tents have returned to them.

But Reginette was not in hers one recent night. A boy inside said he would help find her.

Down a row of orderly tents, a solitary figure sat hunched over a borrowed school book, bathed in the halo of a street lamp pointed toward the road.

Reginette Cinelien made do, grasping any light she could find.

Stephen Smith can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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