11 May, 2010 — Socialist Worker
Hervé Junior Bijou returned to Haiti on April 21 for the first time since the earthquake struck in January. He is from the town of Jérémie, where he graduated from law school in 2006. While studying, he co-founded an organization to provide legal assistance to detainees who could not afford an attorney—Haiti has no public defense system. His new organization, called Maha-Lilo, or Many Hands, Light Load, is working to get aid to his hometown.
Hervé has spent the last two years in the U.S. and currently lives in Seattle. The day before he returned to Haiti, he spoke to Jesse Hagopian, a teacher in Seattle and SocialistWorker.org contributor who was in Haiti with his wife and 1-year-old son when the earthquake hit.
TELL ME about your hometown in Haiti.
MY HOMETOWN in Haiti is Jérémie. It is considered one of the hardest places to travel to because of the transportation difficulties. It can take many, many hours by land because of roads that aren’t maintained.
Also, by boat, it can be a long and perilous trip. They often don’t respect the safety regulations for the limit of passengers on board. So if the capacity of a boat is 300 people, it isn’t unusual to see that same boat to carry over 2,000 people.
These are the conditions that make it very difficult to reach Jérémie in normal times. The one positive outcome of the difficulty in accessing Jérémie is that it is one of the last places in Haiti that hasn’t been deforested. Because it would be so difficult to transport anything in and out of Jérémie, its forests have remained intact. And because the trees are still there, they have kept the soil fertile. Fruits, bananas, plantains, spices—all grow in Jérémie.
But one of the first things you should know about Haiti is that it is highly centralized, which means that the entire government runs out of Port-au-Prince: education, justice, commerce, political decisions, everything.
So let’s say you want to do something as simple as get a driver’s license—you have to go to Port-au-Prince to get it. If you want to get food shipments, especially rice, you have to go to Port-au-Prince to get it. This presented many challenges for the people of Jérémie even before the earthquake.
HOW DID the earthquake effect Jérémie? What have you heard from your friends and relatives? How is the relief effort going?
JÉRÉMIE WAS not hit directly. But the earthquake impacted Jérémie all the same. Thankfully, none of my family was injured by the earthquake—but no one in Jérémie was unaffected by it.
Many people from Jérémie leave because there are no jobs, no proper schools, only one law school and no university. So they travel to Port-au-Prince to make a life. Now, after the earthquake, millions have been left homeless, and all the people from Jérémie are returning home. As a result, there is a food crisis in my hometown—a scarcity of resources, and now without jobs, people are running low on money.
Another thing is that you have all these injured people from the earthquake retuning home to Jérémie and hoping that they could get some help. But they aren’t. Unfortunately, we only have one small hospital, with not that much capacity to take care of all those people and not enough resources in terms of medical supplies or personnel. And now they’re dealing with thousands and thousands of injured people.
The last time I talked to my friends and family, they said there was still no aid coming into Jérémie. All the aid is going to Port-au-Prince, and none is coming to Jérémie—that’s how it is.
It’s the same for all the other cities in Haiti. Maybe some of the areas closest to Port-au-Prince might have a few NGOs reaching them, but mostly they have been left on their own. People outside Haiti think that because the other areas weren’t directly hit by the earthquake, they don’t need to attend to them—this is just not true. Jérémie is overwhelmed by the injured, with very little direct medical help from NGOs.
IN GENERAL, what’s your opinion of the NGOs in Haiti?
THE GENERAL opinion is that out of thousands of NGOs in Haiti, there are only a few of them that really help. Everyone knows that all the NGOs in Haiti go back and forth in cars all day long, but that they are wasting money under the cover that they are helping Haitians—but they are not.
I don’t understand the need for that many different organizations in our country—many of them do the same thing, and all of them competing for the same projects. Doctors Without Borders and the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) are among the few that are doing good work in the Grand’ Anse district where Jérémie is located.
To me, the priority should be helping the government, which can oversee these projects and coordinate them—especially for accountability. Any time that much money is flowing into a country, there is going to be corruption—even in internationally respected NGOs. That’s why all the money should go to one place where it can be accounted for.
We need the money in the hands of the government where it can be tracked. You can have somebody in each area of the government as an observer of the funds—someone to account for every cent. But as you know, only one cent of every dollar of U.S. aid is going to the government. You can’t expect the government to be able to do any real reconstruction with that.
WHAT WOULD be a more effective way to help the Haitian people, both in terms of their long-term economic interests and immediate aid relief? What would be an alternative to setting up all these NGOs that, as you say, have been largely ineffective?
FIRST OF all, the world needs to identify the huge immediate need in Haiti. The need is to care for the thousands of injured people, to accommodate homeless people, and to start reconstruction in Haiti with mid-term and long-term projects.
The international community and the NGOs should also realize that Port-au-Prince is not the only place that needs relief. They need to start by going to all the major cities in Haiti. Bringing supplies to the hospital in Jérémie would go a long way.
There are many people who are dying now months after the quake because they did not receive proper medical care. These people are now scattered all over Haiti and need proper treatment, wherever they live. All the NGOs have in mind is clearing the rubble, but they need to take care of the people.
ONE THING I noticed when I was being evacuated from the Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport was that there was a lot of aid piling up and not being distributed. There were a lot of U.S. soldiers around the airport, and their flights were prioritized over flights from Doctors Without Borders. I soon found out that the U.S. sent some 20,000 troops to Haiti right after the quake. What is your opinion of soldiers being sent to Haiti—either U.S. or UN?
HAITIANS KNOW that their country has been occupied by the U.S. before, and this reminds us of that occupation. The Haitian people don’t need soldiers; they need doctors, medical supplies and food! And even as U.S. troops transition out of Haiti, the UN soldiers are still maintaining their occupation.
We don’t need guns sent to Haiti—what we need are civil engineers to build emergency housing in preparation for the rainy season, and then work to build proper housing with plumbing and electricity.
HOW DO you think the rainy season is going to affect the people of Haiti?
THERE ARE many people who survived the quake, but are injured badly. When the rainy season comes, those wounds will get infected, and disease will spread quickly. The dead bodies and the blood will spread disease through the water. People are going to get flooded, and people living in water for days will lead to many more deaths.
The U.S. and the international community have the means and the money to set up prefabricated houses right away. Take a big warehouse and get the prefabricated housing inside it right away—a place where families can stay inside that is properly covered and dry, while they work on longer-term, proper housing.
That’s what must be done, but it’s not happening. And when the floods come, it will cause even more damage than the earthquake because it’s not going to last for only one day, it will last for a week or two.
The rebuilding effort should start with getting the government back online. Once you have it functioning, you move to reconstruction, food distribution and cultivation, and medical care.
THAT BRINGS me to my next questions: You’re forming a new organization called Maha-Lilo, or “Many Hands Light Load.” What is its purpose? How can this organization fit into the relief effort, and how will it be different from the many NGOs all ready in Haiti?
ONE OF the first differences between Maha-Lilo and many of the other NGOs is that we are not focusing on Port-au-Prince. We are focusing our efforts in my hometown of Jérémie. A place I spent all of my life except that last couple of years. A place I know well. A place where my family lives, and a place where there are people I care for.
This is different than some organization coming to Haiti that has no relationship on a personal level with the people. It will be easier for us to assess the needs of the people because they will be more open to us than to people they don’t know. We know the problems of these people because I have been living among them most of my life.
Finally, the projects we are focusing on are social programs that will help empower and employ the people living in Jérémie.
We have four goals with this organization: First, we want to help with earthquake relief by attracting attention and some of the aid that is going to Haiti. Also, we want to get the help of doctors, nurses and engineers to Jérémie for immediate relief.
Second, there are so many more orphans after the earthquake. Rather than leave these children to the streets, we want to see what we can do to set up an orphanage program for them. Left to the streets, they may turn to prostitution, end up in jail or be taken advantage of in some other way.
Third, we have a program in mind to work on health education and girl and women empowerment. We know that people there are not educated on certain health issues. My wife has worked on these issues in Jérémie before and brings this experience and expertise.
Let’s take the example of HIV-AIDS—for many it is still a myth, and we need to provide education for these people in a way that can connect with their culture. If you don’t know the tradition and culture of the people of Haiti, you cannot effectively help them—even with all the good will in the world
Fourth, we want to work to improve prison conditions and help to get a public legal defense system operating in Haiti. Haiti doesn’t have a public defense system and in a country where many people only live on a few dollars a day, most cannot afford legal representation.
In 2006, I volunteered for a project under the “Haiti Rule of Law” program run by Jérémie, Haiti’s law school and the district attorney’s office. The project I helped create provided free legal assistance to indigent detainees in the civil prison.
During this work, I came across the case of a 16-year-old girl who was detained for infanticide. When I went to see her in the prison, she told me the horrible story about her life in prison, where she had been held for over a year without ever having been to court for even a preliminary trial.
She had been arrested in her remote village and transferred to the prison soon after giving birth on her own, having kept her pregnancy resulting from rape a secret; she wasn’t even given the chance to see a doctor. She was orphaned and had no money, and her only aunt never visited because of distance and poverty. I took her case to the criminal court and she was set free of all charges.
This success was the first of many as I got more and more involved in the project. While concerned by the failure of the legal and penitentiary system in Haiti, and already looking for a way to make a change, it was her story and many other ones like it that gave me a purpose and deepened my motivation and determination to give legal assistance to those who could not afford a lawyer.
In Jérémie, we had only 12 cells for a prison population of over 245 persons as of now. With no distinction between detainees and convicted, or between adults and minors, the facility painted a clear picture of the need for major reforms.
Maha-Lilo has decided to work on starting a project whose purpose would be to provide free legal assistance to indigent detainees and represent them in court. The dream is to extend the same legal aid not only to Jérémie, but also, over the years, to other cities willing to participate in the program. We believe that every accused, just by the fact that they are human, no matter what the accusation, have the right to be represented and have a fair and just trial.
YOU LEAVE for Haiti tomorrow. What do you hope to get out of your trip?
I INTEND to write about my experience and share this information with you all soon. I am hoping to perform a needs assessment for these four projects that Maha-Lilo is working on. I will visit the hospitals and the prisons. I will talk to the other organizations and assess the relief work they are doing. I will visit both Port-au-Prince and Jérémie and evaluate the situation that children are living in.
With this information, I hope to be able to return to Seattle and begin raising awareness and support for the people of Haiti and for our efforts to address this crisis.
What you can do
Donations and aid are still desperately needed in Haiti.
Find out more about the new organization cofounded by Hervé Junior Bijou, called Maha-Lilo, or Many Hands, Light Load. mahalilo.wordpress.com/
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d’etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office. www.haitiaction.net/About/HERF/1_12_10.html
For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.
The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health. www.pih.org/home.html www.pih.org/home.html