Ruth Derilus had seen her share of tragedy. A 33-year-old iron-willed social worker trained by Haiti’s Papay Peasant Movement, she twice helped organize relief efforts when massive floods devastated the city of Gonaïves and the surrounding countryside. In September 2004 she worked with women’s and youth groups after Tropical Storm Jeanne killed more than 3,000 people. Four years later, she lost her home when a second deluge, unleashed by Tropical Storm Hanna and augmented by Hurricane Ike, once again brought the city to its knees. Ruth kept on going, working to organize rice farmers whose crops had been destroyed.
But nothing would prepare her for the tribulations she would face after the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12 of this year. Ruth was in Gonaïves, and she got a phone call within minutes. Her 20-month-old son, Chevano, who was living with her husband in the capital, had suffered a blow to his head when their family’s house collapsed. The line went dead. The next morning, Ruth took a bus to Port-au-Prince and went straight to the hospital. She could not find her son. She returned home and found her mother in tears. The nearby hospital had stopped operating after the earthquake, and by the time Chevano was taken to a United Nations military hospital on the morning of January 13, it was too late. Ruth recovered her son’s body ten days later. Her husband was never found.
Ruth spent two inconsolable, sleepless weeks with her family in her hometown of St. Michel de L’Atalaye. Then, on January 26, she went back to work. In part it was the desire to help her country; in part it was the need to escape her grief. She moved into a camp with thousands of other homeless people in Port-au-Prince, and signed up as an organizer for an alliance of small, progressive NGOs called the Haiti Response Coalition (haitiresponsecoalition.org). She visits two to three camps a day, helping them to get ready to receive and distribute aid.
The camps began forming hours after the earthquake, as people sought shelter far from buildings and walls. They occupied streets, empty lots, playgrounds, schools, soccer fields, plazas, parks, a car dealership, the prime minister’s lawn and Haiti’s only golf course. In the absence of any authority (UN peacekeepers and Haitian police were nowhere to be seen in the days after the earthquake), the survivors began organizing almost immediately, forming security brigades to protect camp residents from would-be criminals. In some camps, newly homeless doctors and nurses set up impromptu clinics for their neighbors. Camp committees dedicated their efforts to look for and receive aid from international organizations.
All this made Ruth’s job easier, but she concedes that the results of her work have been disappointing. In the first days after the earthquake, the coalition’s member organizations had difficulty sending aid, blocked from landing planes in Port-au-Prince by the US government, which controlled the airport and initially gave priority to troop deployments and the delivery of military equipment. But even since the transportation lines were loosened, the aid has come slowly, and Ruth has helped organize more camps than she has aid to deliver. Meanwhile, the well-heeled major relief aid agencies have often ignored camp committees and made handouts conditional on the presence of US or UN troops. (One World Food Program distribution I planned on attending was canceled at the last minute because not enough peacekeepers could be mobilized to provide security.) Even with soldiers standing guard, the distributions often ended in melees, attracting journalists and driving away families not willing to fight for food despite their hunger.