“You Need to Hear From the People:” Communicating From Haiti’s Refugee Camps

“We’re working to give speech to the most excluded, to democratize the means of communications in Haiti,” said Sony Esteus, director of the Society for Social Mobilization and Communication, or SAKS by its Creole acronym. Haitian community radio stations are gearing up broadcast the voices, perspectives, and issues of internally displaced peoples, while at least one young woman in a refugee camp has launched her own communication program: an international blog.

“Displaced people have the right to information about what’s happening in the reconstruction of their country. They need a space, too, to say how they’re living in the camps. This project is not just to accompany people in the terrible situation since January 12, but to let them know that they are people and that they have everything they need to live like people, such as communications,” Sony said.

Almost two million people out of a population of nine million are currently homeless or displaced. Some live with family or friends, but most reside in 1,300 recognized camps and hundreds more informal ones. In interviews spanning six months, camp residents have regularly expressed their frustration that no one is listening to them and no one is telling them what is planned for them or their country.

Community radios stations affiliated with SAKS will soon set up radios in one internally displaced people’s camp in the town of Leogane and a second in Petit-Goave. Each will serve all the camps in that area. The broadcast will happen from a ‘radio in a box,’ a small case containing all the requisite radio equipment: laptop, microphone, emitter, CDs, and cassettes. While awaiting authorization from the government, SAKS is training youth to run the stations. The program is receiving help from UNESCO, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), and International Media Support.

The Haitian Women’s Community Radio Network, or REFRAKA, is preparing its own program for displaced women who have fled Port-au-Prince and who living in camps and other lodgings in towns and rural areas. The network is preparing for daily radio broadcasts which will reach about 30 community stations. REFRAKA will also create a weekly program which will synthesize the major issues women are facing in post-earthquake Haiti, such as psychological trauma and the right to protection from violence. In collaboration from UNESCO and Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE), 15 women have received equipment and are being trained in such skills as interviewing other women.

After the January 12 earthquake, one 22-year-old woman took it upon herself to let the world know what life is like in camps. Carine Exantus started her own blog, translated by a volunteer into English, on an international site. A university student studying communications until the catastrophe, Carine now lives with her family under four sticks covered with a tarp in Place Pigeon, a spontaneously created refugee camp in a downtown park.

“Though it’s been months since the January earthquake in Haiti, the after-effects still linger for the survivors. So many projects and dreams have vanished from the life of this young twenty-two year old girl,” begins Carine’s most recent blog.

On a recent day in downtown Port-au-Prince, Carine told of her experience of the earthquake and why she began blogging about life in the camps. “January 12 was tragic for me personally, my family, and all Haitians. I was coming back from school and was on the bus when the shaking began. After the strongest shaking, amid all the aftershocks, I knew I had to get word from my family at home, given all the material and human loss I saw in the street. I knew I would find my home fallen because it was a multi-story house, very old. The house was completely collapsed, flattened.

“Unfortunately, we lost two people in our family: my mother’s younger sister and her little girl. Fortunately, the others had left the house. Like my mother, luckily, who had gone to a neighbor’s house to see a sick friend.

“We took refuge in one of the plazas in the [downtown park of] Champ de Mars. When we got up on the 13th, we saw that amidst everything we had lost, all the disaster, we had to figure out a way to survive so we didn’t fall into indifference, so we didn’t let sadness or depression carry us away. We found a place on the plaza and created a little shelter to protect us from the elements, from the sun. But it was difficult for us to adapt. After the earthquake I was calm and lucid, but living this way made me get depressed.

“I had a friend from school who was in the same bus with me the day of the earthquake. After a little while, we spoke on the phone and decided that something of this magnitude, we couldn’t just let it pass. We talked and talked and talked and we said, ‘Ah, we should keep a journal about our experiences, about how we’ve survived since January 12.’ So I started keeping a journal. And at first, I just wrote a little bit – half a page, two or three lines. But my friend would always ask me, ‘Carine, are you writing? Are you writing?’

“In the camp I met my former professor who teaches a class on journalism in the Faculty of Human Sciences at the State University of Haiti. When I told him I was keeping a journal, he put me in touch with UN Population Fund so I could publish my diary on a blog called Conversations for a Better World.

“I’m doing this because if you don’t live in a place, you can’t understand what kinds of problems people living there are facing. To understand, you need to hear from the people who are living there, and they can tell you how they’re living, what problems they’re facing, and how to resolve those problems.

“The world needs to know what’s happening in Haiti. Before January 12 this was a troubled country, and after January 12 the problems multiplied. What I’d like to tell the international community is that we have to get together with them to let them know what Haiti’s problems are so we can look for solutions together.

“People leave comments on the blog. They’ve received it very positively. They say it’s good for me to express how things are in the camps.

“This [blogging] has been a great experience for me because I could have been writing these things in my journal and they could have just stayed in my little purse, in my notebook, without anyone ever seeing it. But now that people are reading it and commenting on it, I feel very honored.

“My future? I hope to keep studying social communications. I’d like to get a master’s and pursue a career in public relations, to build relations between the community and the authorities. Because in this country, the talk you hear doesn’t come from the majority. Its comes from the minority who has a bigger voice. But what most people think, you don’t know it, you don’t hear it.”

To read Carine Exantus’ blogs, go to http://www.conversationsforabetterworld.com/author/Carine%20Exantus/.

To support REFRAKA’s project to install women’s radio in refugee camps, go to http://waccglobal.org/en/activities/haiti-appeal.html

Thanks to Laura Wagner for translating the interview with Carine.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.