PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Attorney Reynold Georges showed up with a judge and a police officer on a recent afternoon at Camp Acra, a cluster of tents and plywood shelters scattered across rocky hills dotted with trees in the heart of the Haitian capital.
The lawyer told the camp of some 30,000 people that they were squatting on his land and had to leave, witnesses said. If they didn’t vacate, he said he’d have the place burned down and leveled by bulldozers. Camp leader Elie Joseph Jean-Louis said other angry residents, who had lost their homes in a catastrophic 2010 earthquake, fought back by lobbing rocks at Georges and the people he had come with.
The camp residents managed to protect their homes that day but they also brought to life a far-reaching problem.
In the few weeks since the mid-April confrontation, their plight has become a symbol for what many say is the growing use of threats and sometimes outright violence to clear out sprawling displaced person camps, where some 320,000 Haitians still live.
The standoff set off a chain of events that left several shelters burned and a camp resident dead. It occurred a little more than a week before the human rights group Amnesty International issued a report on the jump in camp evictions in Haiti over the past year.
“This terrible event is proof of the consequences of continuing forced evictions in Haiti,” Javier Zuniga, a special adviser to Amnesty International, said in a statement about the standoff. “They have been living in camps with appalling living conditions. As if this were not enough, they are threatened with forced evictions and, eventually, made homeless again.”
Georges tells a different story. The former senator, whose most famous law client is former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, denied that he had threatened residents, saying he was only there to show officials what he said was his land.
“If they said that, they are crooks and liars,” Georges said of camp residents.
After Amnesty released its report, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe told The Associated Press that the government of President Michel Martelly was in fact trying to stop the evictions.
The government does not “believe in forced evictions,” Lamonthe said. “There are some private owners that do it, but the government itself does not condone that.”
Haitians displaced by the earthquake are entitled to special legal protection under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which prohibit forced evictions unless necessary to protect the safety and health of those affected. National authorities are responsible for protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced people.
By all accounts, clearing the camps in a humane way reflects the epic challenge that Haiti still faces more than three years after one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
The earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and displaced as many as 1.5 million others, a staggering number in a country of 10 million. In its aftermath, settlements such as Acra sprang up around the crowded capital where land runs scarce, with people building shelters with debris, tree branches, salvaged timber, tarps from aid groups and bed sheets. The camps eventually became miniature cities with their own stores, barber shops, bars and churches. About 385 of the settlements are still standing.
Aid groups and officials from Martelly’s government say fewer visible encampments and a smaller number of displaced residents are proof Haiti is recovering. But housing advocates worry that many people are actually being evicted with no place to go, at the hands of authorities or people such as Georges who claim to own the land.
Evictions were far more common just after the quake, with the International Organization for Migration calculating that 6,650 people were forced from informal camps during the last six months of 2010.
The practice tapered off, however, with just 279 people evicted in the last six months of 2012, according to the organization.
Now, that number is growing again as private property owners grow impatient to regain their long-occupied land. According to the migration organization, 977 displaced people left the camps through force or threats during the first three months of 2013.
The story is different on public lands, where many displaced people have already moved out of after the government offered rent subsidies elsewhere.
Earlier this year, about 700 people were kicked out of another encampment on private land in the Port-au-Prince district of Carrefour after police fired warning shots and a judge ordered them to leave.
People from yet more camps have said they’ve fled their temporary homes after fires tore through the settlements in the middle of the night or in some cases when police destroyed their tents or lean-tos with machetes. But unlike Camp Acra, no one in those cases was reportedly killed by the authorities.
That bloodshed has thrust Camp Acra into the heart of the debate, with much of the ire focusing on Georges and his infamous client.
Duvalier, the ex-dictator, returned to Haiti from exile in 2011 and is fighting off human rights charges stemming from years of brutal rule. Camp residents say the former strongman is also among several Camp Acra visitors who have claimed ownership to the land.
Although most of the area is believed to belong to the government, as well as a small portion to Haiti’s influential Acra family, even humanitarian groups specializing in housing issues aren’t certain who the owners are. Land disputes in Haiti are often settled with bags of cash, guns, machetes or arson.
Residents say Georges’ visit was only the start of their problems.
Hours later, an unidentified band on motorcycles raided the camp while residents slept, setting fire to seven makeshift homes, according to an Amnesty investigation. Residents who woke to the smell of smoke quickly doused the flames with buckets of water.
Over the long night, several hundred residents walked down the hill to a police station to report the raid, but the officers refused to help, said camp leader Jean-Louis.
“The police said they didn’t have gas for their cars,” he said.
Angry camp residents protested by lighting a bonfire of tires and other trash and blocking Delmas 33, a major thoroughfare.
It was around the same time that the tensions turned deadly.
At around 5 a.m., one camp resident, Merius Civil, left his shelter to throw out the trash, just as police officers from the station stormed the camp, his sister Anele said.
The officers arrested Civil as well as neighbor Darlin Lexima, said Patrice Florvilus, an attorney representing the dead man’s family and other Camp Acra residents. Lexima said he later saw Civil in police custody, too dazed to speak.
“I saw that his face was bashed in, his nose was bashed in, and he had marks on his body,” Lexima said.
Florvilus’ law firm said that it believes Civil died at the Delmas station, and that witnesses reported seeing officers carry a sheet-covered body from the station to a patrol car.
Police Inspector Jean-Faustin Salomon offered a different account, saying Civil died at a hospital. He also said a preliminary report showed neighbors beat Civil and Lexima because they didn’t participate in the protest.
“A good man has left the world,” sister Anele said sitting on a bucket in the doorway of her brother’s shelter. “Now that he’s dead I want to know why.”
For the Rev. Waler Baptiste, a Camp Acra pastor, the settlement came under attack for a simple reason: Haiti wants to rid itself of displaced people without giving them anywhere to go.
“People have been trying to remove us to take back their land,” Baptiste said. “The government doesn’t care about us. Whoever can take advantage of us will try to take advantage of us.”