Haiti's Earthquake, Two Years On: Where the Living Mingle with the Dead

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Thony Belizaire / AFP / Getty Images

Women walk by posters showing victims of the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Petion-ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 10, 2012.

Until two months ago, the only residents of Titanyen were the dead — hundreds of thousands of dead. Titanyen, located north of Port-au-Prince, has been used as a body dumping ground for decades. It's where the Tonton Macoutes, the feared militia of the 1957-86 Duvalier family dictatorship, buried many of its estimated 30,000 victims; where gangsters carried out executions — and, after the apocalyptic earthquake that struck Haiti this week two years ago, where crushed corpses were dropped into the earth by the thousands. Since then, Titanyen has received the dead claimed by the recent cholera epidemic.

But in recent weeks a new wave of residents has arrived at Titanyen — and these are alive, appearing each morning with pick-axes and machetes to clear away the rough terrain. Many were made homeless by the 2010 earthquake and have grown frustrated with life in squalid tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince — or have been evicted from them. Tired of waiting for their government or international organizations to help them, they say they've decided to help themselves, even if it means becoming macabre settlers atop what is essentially one of the western hemisphere's most massive mass graves. "Soon all you'll see here are tents, tents, tents," says Pierre Smith, 37, who plans to homestead at Titanyen himself.

An enormous but slow-going reconstruction effort is still underway in Haiti two years after the 7.0-magnitude temblor tore Port-au-Prince and other nearby cities to shreds. Rebuilt government ministries are today working alongside countless national and international NGOs to clear rubble and repair or replace damaged buildings and homes. The effort has been hampered by an ongoing cholera crisis, friction between the federal executive and legislative branches and, many complain, tardy delivery of the some $10 billion pledged by donor nations. Alongside that work, however, is a growing number of more spontaneous endeavors, Haitians taking it upon themselves to build newsettlements. The burgeoning community at Titanyen — whose land reaches right up to the edge of the open grave pit — is but the newest, and most controversial, product of what locals call the post-quake "auto-reconstruction" spirit.

Wilda Labady, 50, a street vendor, hopes to settle at Titanyen. Her face still bearing the scars from the collapse of her home in the quake, she brought her son and neighbor to help her demarcate and clear a plot of land she claimed on a recent winter afternoon. "I think they'll make it a church, a market or a public square," she says, looking toward the main area of the cemetery. From the edge of the nearby National Highway to the hills that roll toward the mountain ridges in the distance, nearly every scrap of land seems to have been spoken for. Some are lined with neat rows of rocks, others by ribbons stretched across jagged sticks plunged into the soil.

Thousands like Smith and Labady have reserved their plots through one of at least two different associations claiming to regulate thearea. One, the Movement for the Reconstruction of Haiti, has been charging each household around $5 to register tracts — and so far some 8,000 have signed up. "We're not doing anything illegal," says the group's leader, Roosevelt Stjean, 48. He points to a copy of an official government publication, dated April 15, 2010, containing a decree from then President Rene Preval that a vast stretch of land north of the capital, including Titanyen, be free for public use. "We don't want a slum," Stjean says, gesturing to where a future church, school and soccer field will go. "We are the people. We can do this."

Clement Belizaire, the director of 16 Neighborhoods/6 Camps, a major camp resettlement program under the Prime Minister's office, says it's natural that people who lost homes in the 2010 disaster would try to build again on their own. While the land north of the capital has indeed been declared public, he concedes, "the government hasn't formally said what's going to happen." Haitians like the Titanyen settlers, however, say they've waited long enough to see "what's going to happen," and preventing them from building or setting up tents on isolated territory is hard to control as a result.

Still, notes Alfred Piard, Haiti's Director of Public Works, while the settlers may enjoy their new location for now, there are long-term consequences. There is, for example, no electricity or sanitation. "Eventually," he says, "that will create more problems than it solves." Moreover, Piard adds, ad-hoc settlements like Titanyen recall one of the reasons the scale of the 2010 quake's destruction was so colossal: Haiti's poor building and planning. "Reconstruction is being carried out as though the earthquake never happened," he says. "This much change. Otherwise, we'll have a new catastrophe."

Some progress is being made by government ministries and their partner NGOs. Half of the estimated 10 million cubic meters (350 million cubic feet) of rubble that has blocked meaningful reconsruction has now been removed. The tent-camp population is down to 515,819 people at 707 sites, from a high of 1.5 million at 1,555 sites in mid-2010. More than 100,000 temporary or transitional shelters have been built; some 13,000 houses have been repaired and more than 4,600 have been newly constructed. The 16/6 resettlement project has shut down three camps, relocating almost 1,400 households to rebuilt homes in their neighborhoods of origin.

This month, in his first address to Haiti's parliament, President Michel Martelly emphasized the need for planning, decentralization and, above all, revitalizing the economy of the western hemisphere's poorest country as the best means of galvanizing reconstruction. But he also reiterated what he calls the need for a new Haitian Army — a project many of Haiti's largest international donors and partners disagree with.

But forcible evictions by private landowners continue to threaten one in five displaced Haitians — and even at the current rate of resettlement and camp closures, Haiti will still have tent camps on the quake's third anniversary. One result: Haitians keep coming to Titanyen. Marielle Derice, 43, moved into a tarp-covered shack there last week when she was evicted from her home in Cite Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum. "I feel comfortable here," she says, looking out over the quiet hills toward the Gulf of Gonave — an idyllic view that helps her and thousands of others forget the immense graveyard beneath their feet. "People have the right to land."