Monday, July 12, 2010

A little bit of Hollywood in Haiti.....kind of

In case it wasn’t obvious already, one of the things that brought me back to Haiti is the IDP camps. I have become really interested in everything to do with camps: site planning, camp management and camp coordination. While here in March, I read a lot about the work that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) does and really liked it. So while working for my NGO here, I am also trying to volunteer with the IOM as much as possible to learn how they function. I mentioned briefly in a previous entry that I did a food distribution with the IOM, which was interesting (especially as it was given to me to supervise!), but the most interesting thing I have done so far with them is camp assessments. These assessments are done to identify the true residents of the camp, as opposed to those people who don’t really live there, but come for the distributions/to take advantages of the services offered (I am of two minds about this – I certainly understand the need to identify the “truly vulnerable”, but if a person’s situation is so bad, or their access to resources so limited, that they voluntarily spend their days in these camps, then I say let them have the extra ration of food, or whatever. But anyways.). The only way to do an accurate assessment is to check the tents at night to see if anyone is sleeping there. We already know the names and number of people who are supposedly living in the tent – if they are not there at the dead of night, it means they are not true residents and down the tent goes.

We did two “night raids” on consecutive nights last week. I already knew the gist of what it was going to be like: At around 10pm, teams of 2-3 people would knock on each tent and confirm the information of the people inside. Any empty tents would be removed immediately. It sounds easy enough, except walking into these camps in the pitch black and waking unsuspecting, sleeping residents can be kind of dangerous. I knew we were going to have security agents. What I didn’t expect was how Hollywood movie-like it was going to be!

On the first night, we all met at the UN base for a final debriefing before heading out to the cars that were going to take us to the first camp. In the parking lot were 8 trucks waiting for us, with UN security guards, police officers and OCHA security all armed and ready to go. We pulled out of the base one truck at a time, in a long silent convoy. I have to say, it felt pretty cool! (I had called my sister just before leaving, to find out whether my parents had safely reached New Jersey. She very reasonably pointed out that my parents were driving on a smooth highway from Mtl to NJ in the daylight, while I was about to take off with a good percentage of the military personnel in Jacmel to do a night raid, and that maybe they had more reason to worry about me. I thought that was funny.)

We moved through the city, which was already mostly deserted, the trucks making sure to stick together, until we came up silently to the camp, where the trucks fanned out and quickly shut off their lights so that we wouldn’t alert residents that we were there (so that they wouldn’t call their friends to come sneak into the tents). I had 4 teams to supervise that night, so I was busy walking (and sometimes tripping) from section to section, making sure everything was going smoothly, with my little flashlight lighting my way. Generally teams had one member checking information while the other would be keeping guard. I was alone but had two very nice Sri Lankan UN officers staying near me and helping light my way. None of my teams found empty tents.

The second night was essentially the same except that everyone was exhausted...we had finished the night before around midnight...about three hours after everyone’s usual bedtime. But we met again at 9pm, headed out in that same cool Hollywood convoy and snuck up on the other camp. This time I had only two teams to supervise, so I stayed with them as they knocked on each tent. This is when I really realized what it must be like for the residents. Voices from inside the tents called out, sometimes sleepily, sometimes in fear, asking who had come to wake them in the middle of the night. They had to come to the door to show their ID cards, only to see their normally pitch-black and silent camp teeming with strangers walking around with flashlights everywhere and armed police surrounding the perimeter. One young man came to me and asked if he could just ask me one thing. “Why do you have to come like this to do this to us?”

We found and removed 10 tents that night. I know it was the right thing to do and could only be done this way. But I felt bad anyway.

Not much like Hollywood after all.


  1. You are amazing Namita! I am in tears right now--mostly because I am so proud of you, but I miss you too!

  2. I posted that comment above. Forgot to sign!

  3. Again, the above posts were by me. CHAR