PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- In Cite Soleil, one of the most destitute neighborhoods in this poverty-ridden city, Marines and sailors team-up with a U.S.-based charity to provide much-needed work to the residents of Haiti’s slum by the sea.
Small children play barefoot in the streets as Marines and sailors provide security for local Haitian workers, wearing rubber boots and using pitchforks and shovels, the workers scoop seemingly endless amounts of garbage, sludge and human waste into back-end loaders and dump trucks.
The clean-up project is a joint venture of Marines and sailors from Combat Service Support Detachment - 20, Marine Air Ground Task Force - 8 and Food for the Poor, a Florida-based non-governmental organization. The project has been underway for more than two weeks and has proved beneficial for both the Marines and the Haitians living in the area.
“Since we’ve been out here, we’ve removed eight to ten dump truck loads of trash a day from this area along with strengthening the bond between the forces here and the Haitian people,” said Chief Warrant Officer Michael A. Chin, CSSD-20’s maintenance detachment commander.
Chin and his Marines have been actively monitoring, coordinating and providing security for local workers contracted by Food for the Poor to clean the drainage ditch that runs through the neighborhood’s collage of half-built cinder block shelters and tin huts. Much of the black sludge which normally lies stagnate in the canal, has overflowed into the streets and surrounding area since the start of Haiti's rainy season.
“The canal that was built originally is very small, it was certainly not big enough for the amount of debris that has been deposited here,” Chin said.
Working with backhoes and other heavy equipment, Chin explained that they plan to expand the width and depth of the canal to prevent overflow problems in the future.
“We’ve widened the canal from three feet to ten feet and deepened it from six inches to about five feet,” he said.
Cite Soleil residents have been discarding all types of waste into the canals for years. With no running water or plumbing and no other place to throw their trash, the build-up of debris has finally reached its threshold.
“We’ve been digging down five feet in some areas and pulling up old clothes and garbage that has been there for who knows how long,” Chin explained.
The small alleys created by row after row of shanty shacks and hodgepodge hovels have become a significant obstacle for the Marines and contractors trying to remove the piles of rotting refuse and waste, according to Chin.
“We are working with heavy equipment here and the garbage is down alleys right on people’s doorsteps, as if these homes were built on a landfill,” he explained.
The desperate circumstances under which these people live are the underlying factor to why this project was so important to the Marines, according to Chin.
“Cite Soleil is one of the poorest areas of the city. Out of everyone here, they are the most in need. I think the concept of what we are doing is great, it gives us a chance to really make an impact on these people’s lives.”
Along with simply cleaning up one of the most neglected parts of the city, the project has given the Marines a chance to develop a bond with the Haitian people.
“No matter what we do, there will always be people who look at you with stone eyes. But, I‘ve seen the people here fear us less and start approaching us more,” Chin said. “Most of the people I talk to don’t want us to leave at the end of the day,” he added.
The drainage ditch project is just one of many projects the Marines and other members of Multinational Interim Force - Haiti have undertaken to improve living conditions in Cite Soleil. The task force has conducted operations to clear many city streets throughout Port-Au-Prince and delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars of supplies, such as medical equipment, food and water. All of these efforts have helped the Haitian people and encouraged them to help themselves, according to Chin.
“Since we’ve been doing the street clearing and debris removal, I’ve seen Haitians start to take the initiative to start loading up trash and cleaning their areas on their own,” he explained.
Although Chin and his fellow Marines are focused on the task at hand, many are also concerned about Haiti’s future.
“I just hope that when we leave here, Haiti will not be forgotten. I really hope that efforts to make it a better place for the people here to live continue,” Chin said.