New leaders rise from rubble in Haiti's camps of homeless

PORT-AU-PRINCE — When the earthquake struck, Marie Yvelene Boisdefer was at the soccer stadium, teaching a group of young women a dance routine they were going to debut during Haiti's pre-Lenten carnival festivities.

Her first reaction was to drop to her knees and pray. Her second was to take charge, as the roofless stadium filled with shellshocked neighbors who dragged the wounded and dying into its relative safety.

Nobody from the government ever came to offer assistance or take responsibility. Boisdefer became one of the earthquake's accidental mayors.

The Jan. 12 quake leveled this once-bustling port city, killing at least 230,000 people and leaving some 1.1 million homeless. It also left the government in shambles, destroying every major ministry, flattening Port-au-Prince's City Hall, and leaving President René Préval struggling to stay relevant.

In the power vacuum, Haitians have had to fend, and lead, for themselves. Many of those who lost their homes are trying to remake their lives in one of more than 500 encampments that have sprouted up around the city. Some are home to a few dozen people; others to tens of thousands.

Almost a month after the earthquake, 950 families have pitched tents on the artificial grass of Sylvio Cator stadium, and more are coming every day. Boisdefer finds doctors for the wounded, evicts troublemakers, prints ID badges and scrambles to find food.

``Right now, everybody in the country has to do a little something to help,'' said Boisdefer, who lives in a red, one-person Coleman tent. Her husband, well-known disc jockey Ben Constant, sleeps in his car. ``People are doing everything on their own.''


Those who live in the stadium are some of the lucky ones. Many of the encampments have weak leadership or are still adrift.

At the St. Pierre Plaza, where a few hundred families have gathered, residents said the people who claimed to be their leaders were recently arrested over selling the food vouchers intended for them.

``This place is chaos, we have no idea who is really in charge,'' said Acceh Guerrier, 39, as he huddled beneath an outstretched bedsheet with his family. Although multiple people have registered his name and promised to issue him an identification card, they have never made good on their word.

After facing similar problems at the sprawling tent city at the Champs de Mars in front of the demolished presidential palace, residents planned to elect leaders this week in order to coordinate the distribution of aid.

The issue of who's in charge has become increasingly important as these informal communities compete for food, water and medical services that are flooding in from the international community.

Giovanni Cassani is in charge of settlement issues with the International Organization on Migration, which distributes tents and other nonfood aid to the encampments.

He said many of the camps have pre-earthquake leadership structures. That is, existing city commissioners and delegates assumed those roles in the camps. Other encampments have held elections. And then there are places where charismatic individuals have simply taken charge.

``I don't know how to explain it,'' he said. ``But there are communities that simply have natural leadership coming out.''

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