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Haitians begin return to capital

Photo by Rodrigo Abd

Photo by Rodrigo Abd

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 of 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.

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.