Haiti Dispatch: Inside Sean Penn's Tent City
Mother Jones, By Mac McClelland
Wed Oct. 20, 2010
"I'm black and Haitian, and I wouldn't go where you're going right now,
in the dark," Marc, my ride, says as we're on our way to the Petionville
golf course on the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince. Well, it used to be a
golf course. Now it's packed with more than 50,000 homeless and is known
as "Sean Penn's camp," because the actor's humanitarian organization,
JP/Haitian Relief Organization, runs it. Everyone knows the camps are
hotbeds of rape and violent crime, but we've been planning all day for
Marc to drop me off here to meet someone. His sudden worry about my
getting out of the car is a little unsettling.
"I'm sayin', there's a reason all the aid organizations get their people
outta there by like six," Marc explains. (I've changed his name for his
safety.) But when I resist blowing off the meeting, he allows that this
settlement might be a little safer than others.
Daniel Julien, my new friend who lives here and invited me over, says the
same assuring thing when I meet him on a busy side street and we start
walking into the sea of tarps, lit by a few floodlights on impossibly
high poles. I squint into the glare as Daniel leads me toward his house.
"Did I call it a house? I'm sorry, should I say tent?" he says, and
laughs. He leads me past row after row of plastic supported by sticks
until we arrive at our destination. "And here we are," he says. "My piece
of Tent City."
But "tent" isn't really accurate, either. Daniel's shelter, like the
rest, is several sheets of sturdy plastic cobbled together. The "ceiling"
is uneven, low, and leaky. It's built on a steep dirt slope. Water comes
in from all directions when it rains. And oh, how it rains: hard
monsoon-season buckets pouring in through gaps in the roof and the sides,
the earth floor catching it and liquefying, mud sliding downhill into the
beds made on the ground. That's the kind of water they've got too much
of: the kind that keeps people standing all night so as not to wake up
drowning. Daniel talks about the rain like a terror. A week later, he'll
call me to describe how a 10-minute rainstorm that killed at least five
people in other camps destroyed his shelter and his things (below).
Daniel introduces Melissa, his 10-year-old daughter. "Est-ce que je peux
te donner un bisou?" she asks barely audibly. I sense the outline of
braids in her silhouette, but can't be sure. "Bien sûr," I tell her, she
is welcome to give me a kiss, and I bend down to accept it, supersoft and
tiny against my cheek. Daniel turns a bucket upside-down to offer me a
seat. Everyone else gets on the floor, where he has laid down some
ceramic tiles. There is just enough room for us four to sit; my shoulder
touches Daniel's fiancee's; my feet touch his feet. Melissa lies across
Inside Daniel's place, as it exists for now, the only source of light is
a flashlight aimed at the grey tarp overhead. The dim beam illuminates
the USAID logo printed on it—which announces the gift as FROM THE
AMERICAN PEOPLE—but little else. While I wait for my eyes to adjust to
the darkness, a child materializes at my left thigh.
"Fortunately," he says, "it's not that hot in here right now." I nod. All
our arms are slick and our faces are running with sweat. But that hot
means as hot as it is during the day, when being under the plastic is
like being in an oven, when I become so woozy and oppressed that I find
myself either forgetting or reluctant to suck more hot air into my lungs.
Daniel says that "Sean’s not here right now"—he’s off filming a
movie—and talks about how the actor and American Marines set up in this
camp after the quake. He helped run errands for the Marines. He helped
deliver babies. He did whatever he could to aid the aiders. But the
Marines are gone, and Daniel's friends who work in the camp say much of
the rest of the aid organizations are leaving, too. "Already, it's been
five months since we've gotten any food," he says. But they do have water
in the camp now; you can fill up buckets at pumps. It used to make him
really sick, and sometimes the bleach taste is quite strong. Sometimes
they still wake up with knots in their stomachs. There's water that's
safer to drink, but that's only for sale.
I am thirsty, but I hesitate to buy refreshments because Daniel doesn't
want me to use the communal toilets. It's only eight o'clock, but it's
dark, and plenty of girls before me have been assaulted on that short
trip. Also, "the toilets aren't used properly, and you might get a
disease you aren't interested in catching," Daniel says.
That's why everything smells like urine. To avoid the toilets, Daniel's
family uses a bucket in a corner. The three of them keep their
mud-floored plastic hovel fantastically neat, and empty the bucket
constantly, but at some point I inhale sharply and breathe in too much of
the stink. I puke into my mouth, and pretend I didn't. I suggest that we
go for a walk.
Outside, it's clear that plenty of other residents are improvising
bathroom facilities, too. The air is still, and within seconds my nose
and throat are coated with the reek of hot rotting shit. "People have a
lot of needs here," Daniel tells me while I spit as inconspicuously as
possible. He's starting an organization called Redeem for Handicap.
"There's a lot of amputees because of the earthquake, right?" I ask,
looking for my footing on the steep muddy trail. "How do they get around
here?" "Yeah, that's a problem," says Daniel.
“The idea that this will turn around in your lifetime is a
fantasy—and a crime of gargantuan proportions.”
But he points out that they're hardly the only ones struggling. There's a
lady who lives right over here who lost her husband, Daniel gestures.
She's got kids, and she's too sick to work, and she hasn't eaten in a
week. This tall smiley fellow shaking my hand is difficult to understand
because he's deaf from rubble that fell on his head. He needs a hearing
aid. But Redeem for Handicap, or any other organization, can't raise
money from the international community without a website…
Suddenly, a skinny guy comes tearing up the path. What should he do? he's
asking Daniel, he's asking some guy behind Daniel, he's asking everyone
nearby frantically. Some thugs are threatening his family because they
want the space and piece of tarp his family occupies. The thugs say they
will set it all on fire if he doesn't move his family out. Is there
anyone to talk to? Can he find a cop around here or what?
You can't go anywhere in Port-au-Prince without seeing soldiers of
MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. They do have
a presence in some of these bigger camps—the French platoon kicking it
at my hotel one night had spent their day breaking up a fight among
refugees who cut open the side of a USAID tent to rob it, just as gangs
of rapists slice through the side of a tent easy as pie and steal a
woman. Haitians complain that the troops don't do much to actually
protect camp residents. We haven't passed any police or soldiers or
security on our long lap around the camp.
Daniel suggests to the panicked man where the blue helmets might be. The
man goes running down the path in that direction. I wonder if he's going
to find them. If he does, I wonder how he's going to tell them what's
going on; European, South American, and African MINUSTAH soldiers don't
speak Creole, and do not come with translators.
After a couple of hours of hanging out and wandering around, Daniel walks
me back toward the edge of camp. From the sidelines, we can still hear
the settlement buzz: people gathering in the wider paths, cooking hot
dogs and selling water, people who ran long electrical cords to steal
power to play that awful remake of "We Are the World" over the steady,
chattery thrum. It's not even 10 on a Friday night, but the noise is
starting to die down, Daniel points out. People have to wake up early
lest they roast to death in their plastic ovens once the sun rises.
"How long do you think you're going to live here?" I ask.
"That's a good question," Daniel says. But not right away. First there's
a hesitation, where he fully stops, then catches his breath. It's a
horrible question, actually, under the circumstances. A friend of mine
who delivered aid to Haiti in January emailed me when I got to the
country. "Worst thing about being in Haiti for five days right after the
quake," he wrote, "wasn't the dead bodies in the streets or the stench of
the thousands buried in the rubble or even knowing that there were
countless people alive under there doomed to a slow, horrible death
because help was not on the way; it was knowing that the
survivors—those in the tents and those without tents and those without
homes and without food and water—those people would be without all of
that forever. People forget that the day before the earthquake there were
more NGOs operating in Haiti than any other country on the planet and it
was still an unmitigated shithole and a horror. The idea that this will
turn around in your lifetime is a fantasy—and a crime of gargantuan
So how long does Daniel think he's going to live here, in this camp? He
needs a moment to collect himself before he puts on his brave smile.
"That remains to be seen," he says. That's the sort of answer I get from
everyone I ask. It's sort of the only thing people can say when they
still can't believe this is how they live now, but at the same
time have begun to recognize that they're going to live like this for a
very, very long time.