Twenty-four hours in a tent village in Port-au-Prince

The CBC's David Gutnick camps out with the Merisier family in Delma 56, a broken neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince
The Delma 56 tent village in Port-au-Prince, perched on the side of a ravine not far from a mass grave. (David Gutnick/CBC)

It is 5:24 in the morning, still pitch black out, and I have just been woken up by people singing in the next tent. They are about two metres from my head.

I slept in my clothes on a piece of dusty orange and yellow shag carpet that's lying directly on the dirt.

So did everybody else in the Merisier family tent. But right now, I am the only one who's awake.

My back feels a little stiff. My skin feels sticky. My mouth tastes like cooking charcoal.

I can smell my socks.  But I slept well and I feel okay. So I think I am just going to lie here in the dark and soak up the Creole.

Delma 56

Every time a breeze kicks up in Port-au-Prince, you can hear the racket of blue plastic tarps and dusty cotton sheets flapping in the wind.

At meal times, 'Momma Boss' Nadine is the last to eat. The family shares a couple of metal bowls, spoons and forks. (David Gutnick/CBC)

The sheets and tarps — tied around sticks — comprise the homes for the hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti's ravaged capital who are still living in sprawling, makeshift tent villages.

People like the Merisiers.

Nadine, her husband Madsen, their five young children as well as a grown son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

That is 11 people in all, clinging to a small plot on what had been a vacant lot in the neighbourhood called Delma 56.

It all used to be so different.

Madsen worked in construction, Nadine took care of the grandkids.

The teenagers were all in school. They sang together in their church choir. 

There was always enough to eat, and just enough money for school fees and for a few of those stylish dresses the girls love to wear.

All now gone.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. Over the past 20 years. he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. In summer 2008, he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

Read his earlier accounts of life in Haiti after the earthquake as well as of the island's voodoo culture.


By 6:30, everyone is up. That's when the line starts at the local water pouch, a great big orange bag that holds 4,000 litres.

Sleepy six year olds fill up litre-sized plastic bottles. Older kids carry as many as five pails. The bigger you are, the more you carry.

At the Merisier tent, Madsen starts the day complaining that he can not stand waiting in line for the latrine.

Nadine, whom he calls "Momma Boss," and the girls — Maxime, Emmanuella, Noella, Helene, and Maille — just shake their heads and walk over to join the 10-minute wait at the hole dug into the ground.

They hold their hands over their noses. 

When she gets back, Nadine heads into the tent, kneels down and lights the charcoal fire.


Madsen gives Noella forty gourds (about a $1.25) and sends her to buy breakfast ingredients from the lady with the tabletop store.

She sells packages of cookies and cans of tomato paste, as well as baggies full of rice, dried peas, flour and pasta.

While Momma Boss fries the breakfast onions, Madsen fiddles with the tent straps. He wants to make sure the walls won't fall down.

When the earthquake hit, Madsen was on a bus on his way home from work and Nadine was shopping.

Five of their kids, their daughter-in-law and their one-year-old granddaughter were at home.

The store tent at Delma 56. (David Gutnick/CBC)

In 45 seconds their neighbourhood was shaken into rubble.

Thousands of people were trapped under broken cement slabs. But the Merisiers' house hadn't completely collapsed.

Madsen and Nadine found their kids huddled in the middle of the street, praying.

That is where they spent the night.

The lot

The next day the Merisiers began walking through the neighbourhood, looking for a place to live. They found an empty lot covered in rocks and garbage and staked a claim.

They spent the first week sleeping outside and then, says Madsen, God stepped in, in the form of an aid worker from the Dominican Republic who handed Madsen a tent, which has been their home ever since.

The Merisiers' tent has a door that ties shut and two windows to let in a breeze.

At night all 11 of them lie down like sardines on the shag carpet that Madsen rescued from his house. They are safe and together.


Since it is Sunday morning, it is time to give thanks. Ever since the kids were little the Merisiers have gone to the same church in Delma 56.

They loved dressing up and singing in the choir. But now, many of the choir members are dead and the church is gone.

What's more, the Merisier women are terrified of stepping inside a cement building, even a house of worship.

So after wolfing down a bowl of pasta and onions, just Madsen and I walk the few blocks up Delma Street to an evangelical church.

After church, Madsen eats his Sunday afternoon meal of fried plantains, fried goat, some rice and a salad. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Madsen scans the outside walls to make sure that there are no serious cracks and, in the end, declares that he trusts the wisdom of God.

The building is so packed that we have to squeeze sideways through the front door. We are way too far back to see the pastor, or Jesus on the cross.

But for Madsen, that is not important.

For the next three hours he sings and prays, waving the palms of his calloused workman's hands to heaven.

A Visit

On the way back to his tent, Madsen wants to check in on his nephew Sam, who works as a security guard.

A skinny guy in his early 30s, Sam has an easy smile and a gentle manner, as well as a loaded 12-gauge shotgun.

Since the earthquake, wealthy Haitians have hired security guards, like Sam, to protect them from the desperate people living in tents.

Sam asks if there will be room for him in the Merisier tent when the rainy season comes. But he is also working on an alternative plan: He wants to emigrate to Canada because his mother lives in Montreal.

As he unlocks the gate so we can leave, Sam tells me that snow doesn't scare him. But that living in a tent city with no clean toilets or electricity does.

Conflict in the afternoon

In the alley beside the entry to the Delma 56 tent camp a fellow in his 20s sits at a table covered in a tangle of wires and cellphones.

Molière charges 10 gourds (about 30 cents) to recharge a phone from the car battery he's rigged up.

He's a popular man. Without a working cellphone it's impossible to find anyone in Port-au-Prince these days. And Molière's table is a gathering place for tent residents.

Here, a guy named McKenzie speaks to me in English. He has a strut and he is a bit creepy. He tells me he's one of the camp organizers.

The list maker: More than a 1,000 names in the small tent village.

He invites me into his office, a dark damp room full of English schoolbooks and magazines. Then he shows me six sheets of paper.

"This is the paper where I take the names of the people who live here — 1,045."

The list is the record of how many babies live in the camp, how many women, how many men, how many family members have gone missing in the earthquake.

As I look at the list, McKenzie puts his hand on my wallet pocket. He wants cash.

It's the first time that anyone in Haiti has accosted me this way. I push his hand away and stare him down. We leave the office together.

A middle-aged fellow is standing in the alleyway, watching. He is open in his contempt for Mackenzie.

His name is Patrick Moyes and he tells me that he owns the land and that all of the people here are squatters, but he doesn't care.

"I am not kicking anyone out," he says and then points to McKenzie, "but him. He has guns, he threatened he is going to kill me. It is sad, with so many dead and he's threatening to put more dead on the ground."

Patrick Moyes and McKenzie's friends yell at each other for a few minutes.

I have no idea if McKenzie is a small-time thug or just an English teacher who is broke and feeling desperate. And I have no idea if Moyes's gun story is true.

But it is mid-afternoon and blazing hot. I think it's best to go back to the Merisier family tent.

Madsen and Nadine's daughters, Helene and Noella, spend most of their days just hanging around the tent, helping with baby Placide. (David Gutnick/CBC)


Helene, 18, and Noella, 20, are there, washing dishes in a plastic pail.

They both tell me they are bored out of their minds. They have no idea when they'll ever get back to school.

Momma Boss complains about the heat as she stokes the fire and picks pebbles out of a plate of rice.

The girls fiddle with their hair and fingernails and cellphones. The two infants sleep on a pile of folded clothes

Some are in the tent, chatting and napping, letting the afternoon slip slowly by.

A neighbour comes to borrow some salt. A piece of sugarcane gets passed around.

Madsen is lying in a corner, avoiding all eye contact and conversation with his wife. He's spent the last hour praying for a job.

I'm sitting along the other wall of the tent with 20ear-old Puchon, one of Madsen's nephews.

Nadine seems worried, he says, because Madsen spends his days praying and going to church all the time, hoping that God will save his family from further misery.

Puchon fears that Madsen does not want to admit that he is depressed and does not want to talk to his wife about how worried he is.

At five o'clock Madsen winds up the radio and turns on the news

The lead story is about a government program to create jobs for people who are willing to move their families out of Port-au-Prince.

Madsen has spent his whole life in the city. He cannot imagine ever leaving. He is an urban guy who knows nothing about farming.

God will provide, he says.

An evening walk

Puchon and I walk through the tent village to the edge of a garbage-filled ravine.

People are starting to dig away at the dirt hill to make spaces that are flat enough to hold a tent.

Puchon points to a man with a pickaxe and shakes his head. "Thirty-eight or 40 people were buried there two weeks ago," he says. And now someone is putting up a tent right next to the graves.

We walk over and speak to the man with pickaxe, Dorvill, whose wife, Anita, is there as well.

Dorvill says he knows that there are many dead people buried near where he is digging. But he and his wife have three kids and they need a place to sleep.

He also knows that when the rains start the whole hill will turn to mud. Dorvill says then he will build troughs around the tent.

Seven o'clock

Back at the Merisier tent, Madsen has hooked a light bulb up to a car battery.

One-year-old Placide walks around in sandals that squeak with every step.

A pot of yesterday's rice is passed around. Momma Boss has also made some fried bananas and fried potatoes. We each get a handful.

The teenagers are watching an American cop flick on a portable DVD player. The New York skyline flickers across the tiny screen.

Helene, Noella, Emmanuelle and Maxime are not allowed to go outside unless they go together, and only for 15 minutes at a time.

The rules are there for good reason. The Delma 56 tent camp is a labyrinth of tight passageways and Nadine has heard about girls being raped.

Three thousand prisoners who escaped jail when the earthquake hit are still wandering around.

Baby David was the second infant born in the Delma 56 tent village in recent weeks. Madsen helped deliver him because there were no doctors or midwives around. (David Gutnick/CBC)

A new life

Francesca, a woman a couple of tents over, has gone into labour and her mom wants Madsen to come over and pray.

Francesca is lying on a plastic bag spread out on the earth, crying out in pain. There is no doctor, no nurse, no midwife. There is no clean water or clean towels.

Madsen gets down on his knees and takes Francesca in his arms. He begins to pray. And pray.

Within the hour Francesca gives birth to a boy.

Two days earlier, another baby boy was born in the tent next door.

It has been a long, hot, exhausting day. When we get back to the Merisier tent, the girls are lined up on the floor in their pyjamas. Placide is at his mother's breast.

In a bit, Momma Boss and Madsen sit on a chair just outside the tent singing songs from her gospel hymnbook. Candles flicker in the dark.

At 11 p.m. we turn off the flashlight and crawl back into the tent.

All 12 of us will sleep until dawn.


David Gutnick is a documentary producer with CBC Radio One's Ideas. He is based in Montreal, and has covered stories all over the world.