Dispatches From Haiti

The Poor Get Poorer
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 2 2005 12:29 PM

Dispatches From Haiti

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A street corner in La Saline, one of the Haitian slums ravaged by the 
violence 
Click on image to enlarge.
A street corner in La Saline, one of the Haitian slums ravaged by the violence

According to the U.N. Development Programme, Haiti is the least-developed country in the world outside Africa. The numbers are staggering. Fifty-five percent of Haitians live on less than $1 a day. Sixty-five percent live in poverty. Life expectancy at birth is 49 years. Unemployment is so pervasive that the CIA World Factbook estimates that two-thirds of the labor force is unemployed. Since Aristide's ouster, things have only gotten worse.

"The coup happened, and then thousands of people got fired from their jobs," Anne Sosin of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti told me. "And in Haiti, you have a situation where [the head of household] supports an average of 10 others, so people don't have enough to eat, people can't meet their basic needs." U.S. and U.N. officials told me there's basically no investment in Haiti right now, just divestment.

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In a country without economic investment, where violence persists, where the HIV rate hovers around 6 percent (the highest HIV rate outside Africa), and diseases like tuberculosis and malaria still claim lives—in other words, in a country where parents die young—children suffer the most. According to UNICEF, 200,000 Haitian children have lost a parent to AIDS. In total, there are between 300,000 and 600,000 orphans in Haiti, a country of about 8 million people (the numbers vary depending on how you define "orphan"). There are also 10,000 to 12,000 children who live on the streets.

Fourteen-year-old Bebeto is one such child. He ran away from home when he was 7 after seeing his mother stab his father. Both his parents are still alive, but he hasn't seen them, or his brothers and sisters, in years. Bebeto spent six years on the streets of an area of Port-au-Prince called Chanmas, doing whatever he could to survive—stealing, washing cars, loading the tap-tap buses that clog Haiti's streets.

Bebeto told me that one night, just after Aristide was forced from office and violence surged through the capital, he watched the Haitian National Police execute two of the boys who lived on the street with him. Fearing for his own life amid rumors that the police were targeting street kids, Bebeto found a place at a home run by an American, Michael Brewer, who has worked with Haitian street kids since the mid-'90s. Bebeto has lived there for the last year.

"The street kids have zero rights," Brewer told me. "They're worse than the dogs in the streets, and they're treated like vermin, especially by the police."

A passage from the 2004 U.S. State Department report on Haiti outlined the extent of the problem: "On October 27 [2004], the bodies of four street children, two decapitated, were discovered in the public morgue. There were reports that unknown armed assailants roamed the capital and used the street children for target practice." Although there are no solid numbers on total deaths, several human rights workers put the number of street kids murdered in the last two years at over 100.

Even if, like Bebeto, kids have the good fortune to find an organization that can help them, they're still at risk. In La Saline, a slum that has seen some of the worst violence in the last 18 months, I saw a half-dozen holes from stray bullets splattered across the roof of the Lakay home for street children, an institution run by Salesian priests, where street kids can learn trades. In the Delmas 33 section of the capital, Brewer took me to the juvenile prison, where several of the boys he works with were incarcerated. The children told me they had been stuffed inside the prison—10 boys to a cell—for as long as a year without being charged with a crime.

With nothing to lose and no support, some street kids end up joining the gangs that rule Haiti's slums. "Children are at the center of violence in Haiti today, they're at the forefront of the fighting in Cité Soleil," Andreas Brandstätter, child protection officer for MINUSTAH, told me. One of Haiti's most notorious gang leaders, Thomas Robinson, known as Labanyé, spent part of his life at a home for street kids that Aristide himself founded. His gang, dispersed after Labanyé was viciously killed in March, reportedly included street children among its ranks. Brandstätter and his team have gone into Cité Soleil, trying to convince the gangs to stop using what he calls "child soldiers," but to little avail.

In his book Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer writes: "The withdrawal of states from the basic business of providing housing, education, and medical services usually means further erosion of the social and economic rights of the poor." Haiti's street children—the most vulnerable members of an already vulnerable population—have had their rights and their childhoods erased by the abdication of a government's responsibility to its citizens. While the political parties bicker about who will win the spoils of the next presidency, Haiti's street children continue to suffer. And whether they find a way off the streets or whether they're killed on them or even if they join in the killing, they are victims of Haiti's instability—a besieged nation incarnate.

Michael J. Kavanagh is a writer and public radio reporter.

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