PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A half-million Haitians who fled their shattered capital after the earthquake are starting to return to a maze of rubble piles, refugee camps and food lines, complicating ambitious plans to build a better Haiti.
Haitian and international officials had hoped to use the devastation of Port-au-Prince — a densely packed sprawl of winding roads and ramshackle slums that is home to a third of Haiti’s 9 million people — to build an improved capital and decentralize the country.
An estimated 500,000 people fled to the countryside in the days after the quake, many on buses paid for by the government to move quake survivors away from the heart of the destruction. Hundreds of thousands more are camped atop the rubble of their homes, or packed into makeshift camps.
Now some of those who fled are beginning to return after enduring the rural misery that drove them to Port-au-Prince in the first place.
“I didn’t like it there,” said Marie Marthe Juste, selling fried dough on the streets near the capital’s Petionville suburb after returning from La Boule, in the mountains 20 miles to the north.
“My friends help me down here. Up there, I just sat around all day. At least here I can sell things to make a little money,” she said, hobbling on crutches because she injured her ankle in the quake.
The government is largely powerless to keep people from returning, though Prime Minister Max Bellerive protested this week that Port-au-Prince cannot withstand another influx of people.
“It’s impossible for these people to come back before the capital is reconstructed,” he said.
The idea was to use the quake as an opportunity to fix some of Haiti’s long-standing problems.
President Rene Preval’s “Operation Demolition,” an ambitious plan to clear the rubble, includes provisions to remove people living in unstable buildings by force, according to Aby Brun, an architect and member of the government’s reconstruction team.
“We will destroy in an orderly and secure manner,” Brun said.
Haiti’s government on Friday announced a ban on rebuilding until it completes damage assessments and introduces a new building code to be developed with “international partners.” A notice broadcast in Creole on radio warned people against sleeping under or near any damaged buildings. It was not clear how the government would enforce the edict.
A major part of that reconstruction plan is encouraging Haitians to move away from the capital, providing jobs and basic services in other cities, towns and villages.
“We want to create opportunities for them as well in the second cities,” said the U.S. Agency for International Development’s No. 2 official, Dr. Anthony Chan.
But Haitians are already streaming back to their shattered capital.
“This has been my home,” said Alberto Shoute, 62, who returned to his flattened concrete house after eight days in the southern town of Jeremie. “Most people are from here and they didn’t want to stay with people they barely knew. More are planning to come back soon.”
Alfredo Stein, of the University of Manchester’s Global Urban Research Centre, said planners must assume people will return — and must work closely with them to rebuild. Rather than thinking people are in the way, planners must consider their return to be an opportunity to fix not just the bricks and mortar but Haiti’s social fabric, he said.
Haiti plans to build camps with sanitation outside the city, but Stein said such efforts usually fail.
“You’re going to be constructing ghettos that are far away from where people will need to restore their economic lives,” Stein said. “Experiences in other parts of the world show that after disasters, when people are resettled far away from where they were living, (they) turned out to be very complicated places where there is a lot of crime.”
In Port-au-Prince, the U.N. says there are a half-million people in 315 encampments, most without sanitation. Schools are closed — or gone. There’s enough rubble to fill five football stadiums the size of New Orleans’ Superdome, and more than 1 million people need to be provided with food and water.
But if the government has a plan to rebuild, Bellerive did not reveal it — and no one knows when, or to what extent a new capital will rise.
The need remains pressing.
A crowd of Haitians swarmed into a Dominican tractor-trailer near the capital’s airport Friday and stole 2 tons of food and water. The looting happened when someone noticed the Dominican driver got stuck while trying to make a U-turn.
In a nearby industrial park, other desperate and hungry Haitians ransacked eight truckloads of food and water, also from the Dominican Republic. It happened virtually under the noses of soldiers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division.
“Our guys weren’t going to break out shields and start hitting people. That’s not what we are here for,” Lt. Col. Keith Pelligrini said as his troops cleaned up the mess.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Friday in his role as a U.N. special envoy for Haiti relief. He expressed faith in Haiti’s leaders and predicted the country would emerge stronger than before.
“They have a commitment to building the country they want to become, not just the country they were,” he said during a tour of the Port-au-Prince clinic GHESKIO, widely considered to be the world’s oldest AIDS clinic.
While the government says it will build suburban camps, the International Organization for Migration is trying a different tactic: Handing out tarpaulins, tools and basic building materials so people can erect simple shelters where they are.
“People need to be where their support networks are,” said spokesman Mark Turner. Otherwise, he said, “They will be dependent on aid for a very long time.”
Port-au-Prince has long been a powerful magnet for people throughout Haiti. It generates about 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
“In Haiti, things are not easy, so you go where you find the opportunity,” said 23-year-old Ebed Jacques, a law student who left the capital after the earthquake and has returned — for now — to his native St. Marc, a bustling fishing town 70 miles north of the capital. “The jobs are in Port-au-Prince and the schools are in Port-au-Prince, so that’s where you go.”
And despite Haitian and international efforts, opportunities remain few and far between in the countryside.
Most refugees from the capital are in northern Haiti’s Artibonite Valley, a starkly desolate region of rice fields and deforested mountains the color of cigarette ash.
The influx has strained small towns with few schools and few jobs beyond subsistence farming. It inflated prices for sugar, rice and other basics, and a lack of rain could hurt upcoming harvests in the region, which is Haiti’s breadbasket.
In Gros Morne, a town of unpaved streets at the valley’s northern edge, Ann Rose Solitaire, 36, is living with eight relatives crowded into a simple shack with a corrugated metal roof. She sent her mechanic husband back to Port-au-Prince, 100 miles to the southeast, and will probably join him soon.
“I’m here because I have nowhere else to go. But I don’t want to stay,” Solitaire said. “There’s no way to support my family.”
Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds, James Anderson, Frank Bajak, Ben Aurelien and Michelle Faul in Port-au-Prince and Jennifer A. Quinn in London contributed to this story.