North of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 16-year-old Vanessa is working to prevent violence in the settlement where she currently lives with her family.Photo: AFSC/Sergio Rogene
In Haiti’s Corail Camp, the settlement home to about 10,000 internally displaced people left homeless by the 2010 earthquake, there is a young man who goes by “Zo blod”—“the bad guy”—who recently took part in an educational session meant to promote nonviolence in the camp.
“He always walked with a dagger under his shirt,” says Vanessa, 16, who started the local peace network that organizes these sessions as part of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) school and neighborhood peace program in Croix des Bouquets.
After she convinced Zo blod to check out the group, she’s seen him soften. He is shy about going, she says, but he is making progress.
Why did he carry a knife? Life in the camp is precarious.
Three years after the earthquake that destroyed Vanessa’s home and so many others, there are still 280,000 people living in camps in Haiti, including about 75,000 in Croix des Bouquets—many living among strangers and without access to basic services like water, drains, or electricity. Kidnapping, domestic violence, and other violence is prevalent, even in a place like Corail Camp, which was initially promoted by the government as a model of a secure camp.
“Sometimes I feel personally threatened,” says Vanessa. “We continue to live in insecurity.”
The threats to camp residents have changed over time. Vanessa recounts how at first, there were people dying around her from their injuries; later, when her family moved to Corail Camp, people had to confront the fact that they wouldn’t be able to go home anytime soon.
“We began to understand that this was only the beginning of a long and difficult adventure, and we realized that this paradise we were expected was far from being a reality,” she says, remembering what it was like to adjust in the first few months. “No electricity, no lights, not enough drinking water for people.
“As accommodations, [we] used a small room where we kept everything we could remove from the rubble, plus some things given by some [nonprofits] and ourselves, the five family members. Every day we experienced new problems; obviously each family had a different background and different interpretations of every little incident.”
Vanessa began to see conflicts break out in the camp. Sometimes, arguments turned into violence. “There were daily quarrels between people,” she says, and in the unlit areas close to the showers and toilets, there were rapes. Not far from Vanessa’s family’s shelter, a woman was killed by her husband.
“I have not been raised in such a situation,” says Vanessa, “[so] it was very difficult for me to accept and adapt myself to this violent environment.”
Culture of peace
In class at St. Charles Borromee School, she had learned conflict mediation and analysis through AFSC’s peace program, and those lessons helped her see the roots of the violence around her. She decided she needed to do something to make her camp more peaceful.
“Given my experiences in the St. Charles School, I decided to invite the peoples of the camp to create a peace network,” she explains. Only a few people came at first, and some were initially reluctant. But as people understood what it was and word spread, the meetings started to attract more participants.
“At the beginning, they said that I was too young, but now they are the ones who encourage other youth of my age group to join the local peace network,” she says.
In discussion groups, Vanessa’s peers reflect on past actions that they regret—like why they started taking drugs or why they joined a gang. They also do group civic-engagement activities, which Vanessa explains, “connect us and prevent us from succumbing to the crime.”
Vanessa is proud to report that, though the camp is still insecure and her family is still living there, the peace network has helped to calm some tension.
“I remember that before joining the local peace networks, people used to fight for nothing,” she says. “Now they … take the time to find a solution amicably, or in some cases, they require advice from a leader, or they simply call the police. It proves that their behavior has some progress.”