By Tim Collie, Sun-Sentinal,30 December 2002
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—By night they sleep outside the gates of the city’s largest cemetery, huddled in raggy heaps only a few feet from the graves of this troubled country’s former dictators, presidents and moneyed elites.
By day they roam the cemetery’s narrow walks and hidden spaces, doing laundry and hoarding food and water among collapsed graves, overturned coffins and dusty corpses looted by grave robbers.
It’s as close as the street children of Port-au-Prince likely will ever come to finding a place among Haiti’s rich and famous. Malnourished, cut and bruised, they are the poorest of the poor in the most impoverished country of the Western Hemisphere.
An estimated 7,000 street children live in Port-au-Prince, according to the best estimates of international charities. Thousands more can be found across the island in other cities like Cap Haitien or Gonaives.
But that doesn’t begin to account for the thousands more who may be just a notch above the streets, barely surviving in dusty rural villages, working as orphaned domestic slaves in elite households or living without education or medicine in vast shanty slums while parents forage for food.
Calling someone a street child is a very relative term here since so many children and their parents live out on the streets, said Jean-Robert Chery, a university psychology professor who runs a shelter for homeless children in central Port-au-Prince. But what it means here is children who have no parents, who may be as young as 3 or 4, and who sleep outside and find their own food.
Among these desperate youths, the most notorious cases are those who live around the capital city’s main cemetery. In recent months, they have been targeted by police and cemetery officials in a get-tough anti-crime campaign to clean up the cemetery and end looting. In September, six of the cemetery kids reportedly were picked up by police and then later found dead, victims of what human rights groups call summary execution. The deaths remain under investigation.
The cemetery is popular with the children because it’s so big and there’s so many places to hide if the police are chasing you, said Chery, a Haitian-Canadian who has worked with street children in Haiti for two decades. Nobody spends any regular time there so only the kids are the only ones who really know all the hiding places.
Chased and beaten
And there are plenty of hiding places. Walking through here on a weekday morning, a visitor may encounter pregnant teenage girls, children still in diapers and the babbling mentally ill emerging from behind decades-old crypts. Many have stashed clothing and other items on and inside the tombs, which often have been plundered of their former occupants.
As Nadege Badio, 19, carried her 2-year-old son between several crypts to a place where she collects rainwater, she passed a headless body, bedecked in a black, dusty suit, hanging upside down from one tomb. Abandoned when she was 10 years old, Badio has lived in the cemetery since she was 14.
We’re not afraid here, not of ghosts or anything, she explained. If we get sick, we’re already here among the dead. But the dead are already dead, and we’re alive. So they won’t hurt us.
The living are another story.
We get chased and beat up by the police sometimes—some of my friends have disappeared, she said. The police think we’re all pickpockets or robbers. Some of us are those things, but they get a lot of the innocent people, too.
Partly out of a survival instinct, partly out of simple human need for love, the children form informal families known as cartels. Many don’t even know their ages, barely remember their parents and have reddish hair, the most visible sign of malnutrition. Badio is a mother figure who watches out for several younger children, including Esai Kertidor, 10, who said he’s been sleeping in the streets for three years.
Similar to slavery
My mother died, he said. I have an aunt who I was living with but she was mean to me and beating me, so I left. I feel more comfortable out here in the cemetery, and on the streets.
During the day he works on a tap-tap, the small colorful pick-up trucks that operate as private buses on Haiti’s crowded streets. He collects money from passengers and earns about 75 cents a day. With this he buys a small portion of rice and beans that makes up the day’s meal.
Roughly 70 percent of street children are males, according to Chery and other experts, because young females often get picked up to become domestic servants known as restaveks, a Creole term from the French phrase rester avec (to stay with). The National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a leading human rights group, estimates that about 300,000 children 14 and under live as restaveks. They describe their lowly conditions as similar to slavery.
Many of the girls picked up flee these conditions and then fall prey to gangs on the street. Boys, meanwhile, often become the target of homosexual pedophiles who think abusing them will protect them from getting AIDS.
The only escape from such a life is death and drugs, particularly the cheap glue sniffed by urchins eager to feel good about something, anything.
I like glue because it helps me sleep, said 15-year-old Afe Charles, who reeked of a strong glue smell as he shuffled barefoot through the cemetery. I’m going through a lot of misery here everyday. I’m always getting beat up by people and I just like to sleep. That’s all I want to do—sleep.
In a country as poor as Haiti, where more than half the population is unemployed, climbing out of poverty as a child is almost impossible. The luckiest may stumble into some orphanage or charity that truly cares about them—the equivalent of winning the lottery. The rest can look forward to one of the shortest life expectancies in the world—47 for men, 51 for women.
Haitians, who have among the highest illiteracy and infant mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere, earn on average about $450 per year. The most basic social services expected in other countries do not exist here. Public hospitals admit only those who can afford to pay for treatment, medicine and bandages. Education is largely private, and schooling for one child may cost roughly half the annual wage of an average citizen.
If anything, the plight of street children seems to have worsened during the last decade as a fragile democracy has taken hold here. The government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is mired in a stalemate with political opponents who don’t accept his rule because of disputes from an election two years ago. The political troubles have stalled investment, which cripples industrial development and worsens unemployment.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, founded his own orphanage for street children in the late 1980s, but it became a target for his political opponents. Children were wounded in shooting attacks and five died in a suspicious fire that gutted the building in 1991, the same year Aristide was ousted in a coup. Aristide returned from exile to resume his presidency, but the orphanage was closed in 1999 after many of the street children it served complained of poor services.
To protect children, you need a society of laws, and it’s simply impossible to have such laws in this atmosphere of violence and political problems, said Chery, the psychologist.
Children don’t want to live alone in the streets, he added. It’s not their natural condition. They want families. But if they don’t have families then it takes a government of laws and culture that cares about childhood to protect them. We simply don’t have that here.