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Landowners force Haitians out of camps

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitians used to pay money to play basketball and run laps at the Henfrasa Sports Center.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitians used to pay money to play basketball and run laps at the Henfrasa Sports Center. Today, the only remnants of the sports complex are netless basketball hoops and a destroyed track, now surrounded by rickety shacks and tents.

The 7.0-earthquake that toppled Port-au-Prince transformed Henfrasa Sports Center and more than 1,500 other pieces of land, most of them private property, into camps for homeless Haitians. They came from nearby and fashioned homes from tarps and sticks or erected donated tents.

“We had nowhere else to go,” said Marseille Chrisner, 23, as he ironed clothes under a tarp. “If we could, we’d leave tomorrow. But we have no money to leave.”

The sports complex owners — a retired military colonel and his son — want Chrisner and 5,900 others off their land. They began spray-painting tents with messages like “Let go of Henfasa” and handing out leaflets warning of the camp’s closure.

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Frustrated landowners started kicking earthquake victims off their property shortly after the temblor hit. A report by the United Nations’ protection cluster in Haiti found that as of September, some 28,065 camp residents had been evicted and another 116,110 people had been threatened with eviction.

Now, more than a year after the quake, human rights lawyers and aid organizations said it appears owners are more frequently resorting to forced evictions. The evictions “are happening with increased regularity,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration, which is responsible for coordination and management of the camps in Haiti. “We don’t evict or support evictions.”

The situation underscores a major impediment in the rebuilding process. Aid groups, the government and the residents themselves want the displaced to return to neighborhoods that were destroyed. But figuring out who owns the land or tracking down landlords has proved a herculean task. The displaced need permission from property owners to build temporary shelters, as well as promises that rent won’t be raised in a few months.

Finding land with a clear title history is, in fact, a problem that goes back hundreds of years. The government has said that there are so many claims to land that, in many cases, it’s impossible to figure out who owns what. President Rene Preval has said that the amount of land claimed in titles would make Haiti geographically larger than the United States. It’s actually one-tenth the size of Colorado.

Despite its promise to come up with an alternative — such as finding new land to move camp residents to — the government has done so in only a few cases, such as Camp Corail. That camp, located miles outside of Port-au-Prince on a barren stretch of land, is widely considered a failure. The current electoral crisis has further setback any movement on the issue within the government.

(See photos of Camp Corail.)

A representative of Haiti’s Interior Ministry, which has intervened in some camp evictions, including Henfrasa, said only that the government was working on the issue. He declined further comment.

The government issued a temporary moratorium on evictions last year, which slowed but did not stop evictions. It has since expired.

Landowners feel they are left with no choice but to take action themselves.

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“As a business, we’ve been handicapped by the loss of our land,” said Vladimir Saint Louis, who owns the sports center with his father, former Minister of the Interior and Defense Acedius Saint Louis. “Our business is going down the tubes.”

Saint Louis said in a telephone interview that he didn’t know when the camp would close. “The government has said they have land to move them to. But they won’t even tell us where it is,” he said.

It is unclear exactly how many camps have been closed due to forced evictions.

A survey of 106 camps carried out last year by a City University of New York researcher found that 17 percent of camps had been forcibly closed.

Investigators from the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a Haitian human rights group that provides legal assistance to victims, said violence was used in some cases.

The most jarring example was the April eviction of 2,500 people from a camp in the town of Croix des Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince. Armed Haitian police and a quasi-public construction and heavy equipment agency allegedly bulldozed through the camp in the dark without warning residents. Police fired guns and told residents to leave, the group said.

Surveys by the International Organization of Migration found that the number of camps peaked in July 2010 at 1,555 sites and fell to 1,150 in January. The number of people living in the camps also fell from 1.5 million in July to 810,000 in January.

Doyle could not say how many of those camps had closed due to evictions. Similarly, it’s impossible to tell how many of the 690,000 people who have left camps were evicted and, potentially, still homeless.

Patrice Florvilus, a human rights lawyer with Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, said no owner has received a court order to evict residents, which is legally required.

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“Haitian people displaced by the earthquake, are legally entitled to housing. It’s a guaranteed right. But they don’t know this,” he said. “When a land owner tells them they have to leave — and they sometimes do it with violence — the people go because they think they’re doing something illegal by being there.”

Residents of the Henfrasa camp echoed that sentiment. “We don’t know what we’re going to do. They say they’re going to close the camp. I guess we’ll go to another camp or a different community,” said Derezil Jemina as she sat in front of her tent with friends, wearing a tight halter-top and a Jesus fish necklace.

They all came to the camp after the quake destroyed their homes thinking that it was a temporary step.

A year later, the makeshift homes still sit nearly on top of each other and a sense of permanency has begun to take hold. The homes receive electricity. Residents have set up shops — little convenience stores and one-room barbershops.

Deadlines for closing the camp — including the most recent of Jan. 31 — have come and gone, but each day brings new fears that a day of reckoning nears.

“People are scared. They think it’s going to turn violent,” said Amadis Walnez, who heads a committee of camp residents. The committee has contacted the Haitian police and the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which has increased patrols in the camp.

“But none of us know exactly what’s going to happen. … There’s all this money that was sent to Haiti to help people like us, but nobody can figure out a solution.”