For people with nothing — living in makeshift shelters and tents, without jobs and grieving still for loved ones, struggling to find enough food and water to get through the day — a rough-hewn wooden suggestion box might seem low on their list of essentials.
But in Haiti, where more than a million people remain homeless after the earthquake that tore their lives apart almost exactly a year ago, the chance to have their voices heard is rare. When the boxes began to appear in the towns of tents and tarpaulins that litter the area around the devastated Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, the response was remarkable. Thousands of people wrote down their hopes and fears in a deluge of letters that record the human stories behind the disaster.
The project was masterminded by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). As the anniversary of the earthquake approached, it put out 140 suggestion boxes next to its information booths inside the camps that house survivors. It plans to publish a handful of them, with portraits of their writers, in a book.
La Voix de Sans Voix (The Voice of the Voiceless) is testimony to the desire of Haiti’s new homeless to have their voices heard. It also provides a deeply touching record of how precarious life is for an estimated third of the population of Port-au-Prince.
“A few days after the boxes were installed we had one of our workers walk into the office with a big grin on his face and empty out 900 letters that had been dropped into one box over three days,” said the charity’s communications head in Haiti, Leonard Doyle.
The boxes seemed a gamble at first, especially since half of Haitians are illiterate. “I anticipated maybe a few cranky letters,” said Doyle. “The sheer volume was an absolute, blow-me-down surprise. So beautifully written too, all real expressions of suffering that give a human face to this tragedy.”
The letters that continue to pour in — in French, Creole, even halting English — show how people have felt voiceless, lost in the scale of the problem. They are written with a politeness of tone and old-fashioned formality whether scrawled in a childish hand or in elegant calligraphy. Politely but firmly, the letter writers want to be heard.
Some of the letters are lists of woes, expressed with a touching restraint, others are simple in the extreme: “Name: Paul Wilbert. Camp: Boulos. Need: House. Demand: $1 250. Project: Build house. Thank you.”
The addresses tell their own story: Tent J2, Block 7, Sector 3 is where Marjorie Saint Hilaire lives with three sons. Her husband died in the earthquake and the part of the camp she lives in has no school, clinic or market stall, but she has not lost her feelings of gratitude at having survived.
“To all the members of concerned organisations, I thank you first for feeling our pain. I note that you have taken on almost all our problems and some of our greatest needs. We don’t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive — but I would like to stay that way.”
Another mother, another camp. Marie Livia Calixte of Delmas wrote: “It is with great sadness that I talk about the deplorable and miserable situation I live in — I thank God for allowing me to survive and I also thank all those who have helped me to write and continue to help me do so.”
Over the past few weeks almost 3 000 Haitians have put their scraps of paper in the boxes. Other charities are being encouraged to look at them so they can get an understanding of what people are thinking and feeling.
With 1,3-million displaced people in 1 199 camps, homelessness is a whole new level of society here. There have been protest marches to try to force politicians fighting the forthcoming presidential elections to make building new homes a central platform of their campaigns. There is no sign yet that the political elite are listening.
Britons donated £106-million to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal, only half of which has been spent so far. While food, water and medical supplies are reaching many people, there is a strong sense of bewilderment about when money will be spent on rehousing them. Renald Derazin lives in Corail camp, high above Port-au-Prince. “There is anger,” he said. “People see the charity workers coming in and they are very glad, but they also know that hotel rooms and food prices go up because they are here. More money is made by renting land to the UN to park trucks than by renting to people who want to build a new house, so it is very frustrating. That is why they write so many letters.”
‘We are so powerless’
The husband of Sandra Félicien (33) died alongside dozens of his students when the earthquake crushed the school building where he taught literature. She now sits in front of an upturned bucket to write a letter at least twice a week. She finds it therapeutic and it has motivated her to become more involved in the sprawling, desperate community in which she now has to raise her six-year-old son.
“We are so powerless,” she said. “It is like bobbing along on the waves of the ocean, waiting to be saved.”
Jacqueline Jean Batiste
Lively and cheerful, Jacqueline (25) lives in a camp in Cité Soleil, the slum of Port-au-Prince, with her three children. She lost her mother and brothers in the earthquake and now struggles on her own under a leaky tarpaulin shelter.
Good day, good night. Today it gives me great pleasure to take my pen to say something important. IOM, I am happy that you have invited us to write because I need your help and your collaboration. IOM, I have many problems. I don’t work any more because my business is gone. I live, thanks to the mercy of my friends in Camp Boulosse where life is very hard. IOM, when it rains all my things get drenched and I must wait for the rain to stop before getting to sleep. I have three children of school age. I lost my mother, my two brothers and all my belongings in the rubble of my house that was completely destroyed by the earthquake. I wake up every day thinking about my business and my mother who was helping me so much with my children. I will never forget that day of 12 January when they died.
Well educated and confident, Amboise (29), has become the official representative of Camp Lilavoiselo. He is only too aware of the rising frustrations and tensions of the homeless people he works to help.
Hello IOM, We have many problems and the situation we find ourselves in is dreadful. Since 12 January, things have only gotten worse and worse. We do not have work and we do not have money. There is no supervision. We are shown hope, but nothing has come to us except the hurricane season. Must we wait for another 12 January, for another disaster, when things are so difficult for us? What will be done for those of us living in tents? We are eating dust. We want to go home. How can you help? There are talks of a rebuilding process since IOM carried out a registration in the camp but nothing has happened. Must we wait for ever? We want to find work, because it is very painful to wait and be dependent on others for help. When we work, we suffer less. We believe that if IOM could give us work, things would be better for us and our families. Thank you for your understanding, we hope that our request will result in something positive.
Denise Jean Francois
Denise (48), has no job and no source of income and lost her eldest son to the earthquake. With three children to look after, she was devastated when her husband, weakened by the illnesses that swept through the surviving populations, also died shortly after the disaster. Unable to pay her rent, she had to leave the land on which the ruins of their home stood. Her letter was written inside the leaky tent where she now lives.
Good day, it is a great pleasure for me to take up a pen to write down my problems on a scrap of paper and let you know that I am living in a dire situation. My first child, in whom I placed so much hope, was killed in the earthquake. My husband died and left me with three children to feed and care for. Our landlord wanted his land back and since then we have no place to go and no place to sleep. If you do something for me it will help me and God will bless you if I receive a little of what you will have given me. If it is some place to sleep that you give me, thank you. If you give me money, thank you, thank you. The number of the tent is 028. May God bless you Marie Michelle Victor
Widowed by the earthquake, Marie (56), has nine children to care for on her own. Her face is lined with worry and fear. She would like nothing more than to be able to start her small retail business again.
The problem that I am enduring in Boulosse camp is that my two tarpaulins have holes. My house and my business were destroyed by the earthquake. I have nine children and their father was killed under the rubble. Therefore, please, IOM, see what you can do for me. Thank you. Camp de Boulosse, tent #102
Venette is 18 and has a six-month-old baby, born in the displacement camps. She formed a self-help group to look after the handicapped and disabled in Carradeux, a tough camp hit badly in the hurricane season in the autumn. Both her parents were hurt and left disabled in the earthquake and she wrote her letter on behalf of the committee.
From the Handicapped Committee of Carradeux
Dear Director of the International Organisation for Migration. We, the handicapped of camp Carradeux, are living terrible moments since the hurricane of 24 September. Our tents were knocked down, we have nothing to eat and we have no work. Hunger is killing us and our children. We ask you to do something for us according to your liking.
Mr Director, please receive our best wishes. – guardian.co.uk