Inside Sean Penn's Tent City in Haiti
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"I'm black and Haitian, and I wouldn't go where you're going right now, in the dark," Marc, my ride, says as we're on our way to the Petionville golf course on the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince. Well, it used to be a golf course. Now it's packed with more than 50,000 homeless and is known as "Sean Penn's camp," because the actor's humanitarian organization, JP/Haitian Relief Organization, runs it. Everyone knows the camps are hotbeds of rape and violent crime, but we've planning all day for Marc to drop me off here to meet someone. His sudden worry about my getting out of the car is a little unsettling.
"I'm sayin', there's a reason all the aid organizations get their people outta there by like six," Marc explains. (I've changed his name for his safety.) But when I resist blowing off the meeting, he allows that this settlement might be a little safer than others.
Daniel Julien, my new friend who lives here and invited me over, says the same assuring thing when I meet him on a busy side street and we start walking into the sea of tarps, lit by a few floodlights on impossibly high poles. I squint into the glare as Daniel leads me toward his house. "Did I call it a house? I'm sorry, should I say tent?" he says, and laughs. He leads me past row after row of plastic supported by sticks until we arrive at our destination. "And here we are," he says. "My piece of Tent City."
But "tent" isn't really accurate, either. Daniel's shelter, like the rest, is several sheets of sturdy plastic cobbled together. The "ceiling" is uneven, low, and leaky. It's built on a steep dirt slope. Water comes in from all directions when it rains. And oh, how it rains: hard monsoon-season buckets pouring in through gaps in the roof and the sides, the earth floor catching it and liquefying, mud sliding downhill into the beds made on the ground. That's the kind of water they've got too much of: the kind that keeps people standing all night so as not to wake up drowning. Daniel talks about the rain like a terror. A week later, he'll call me to describe how a 10-minute rainstorm that killed at least five camp-dwellers destroyed his shelter and his things (below).
Daniel introduces Melissa, his 10-year-old daughter. "Est-ce que je peux te donner un bisou?" she asks barely audibly. I sense the outline of braids in her silhouette, but can't be sure. "Bien sûr," I tell her, she is welcome to give me a kiss, and I bend down to accept it, supersoft and tiny against my cheek. Daniel turns a bucket upside-down to offer me a seat. Everyone else gets on the floor, where he has laid down some ceramic tiles. There is just enough room for us four to sit; my shoulder touches Daniel's fiancee's; my feet touch his feet. Melissa lies across Daniel's lap.
Inside Daniel's place, as it exists for now, the only source of light is a flashlight aimed at the grey tarp overhead. The dim beam illuminates the USAID logo printed on it -- which announces the gift as FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE -- but little else. While I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, a child materializes at my left thigh.
"Fortunately," he says, "it's not that hot in here right now." I nod. All our arms are slick and our faces are running with sweat. But that hot means as hot as it is during the day, when being under the plastic is like being in an oven, when I become so woozy and oppressed that I find myself either forgetting or reluctant to suck more hot air into my lungs.