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Days later, word spread that the national palace would be torn down. Radio reports said the government of France had agreed to help build a new one. On April 8, people came to see the demolition begin.

The palace was the backdrop for the famous statue of the Neg Mawon, the escaped slave blowing a conch shell to call others to fight for freedom. But the palace’s history, like Haiti‘s, was never simple.

The Beaux Arts mansion, designed in 1915, was torched while still under construction by a mob bent on assassinating the president, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. It was completed under the U.S. occupation that followed his death, and was the scene of successive coups and ousters. Eventually, it became a symbol of terror under the father-son dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Presidents ceased living in the palace after Jean-Claude’s 1986 overthrow, but it continued to host world leaders in its salons _ and protests and coup attempts on the lawn.

The people of the Champ de Mars watched as the backhoes tore down what was left of the portico and, for the first time in most of their lives, they got a glimpse of the grand salon and the crystal chandeliers inside.

Then the machines stopped. A Preval aide said there were disagreements over how reconstruction should proceed. Demolition came to a halt.

On the plaza, aid groups had handed out plastic tarps and put in portable latrines. Shacks went up across every open space. Someone tied a tarp to the side of the Neg Mawon.

Aliodor scraped together most of the money he had _ about $51 _ to buy wood, sheets and tarps to put up a little shack, a few feet (meters) from where he had sat down the first night.

The bonhomie and spirit of sharing that had prevailed in the days after the quake cracked, and then broke. Mugging, robbery and rape became facts of life. Aliodor sent his children to his quiet hometown in the rural south to live with relatives.

Without a government to organize them, the people began organizing themselves. In settlements all over the capital, camps set up organizing committees in an intricate bureaucracy. Aliodor’s Place Dessalines was the largest. He was named spokesman for its central committee.

“I’m one of those guys who has little money but I have a lot of strength,” he explained.


There was, at one point, a plan.

As the homemade camps swelled beyond 1.5 million people, the government said it would relocate 400,000 to the capital’s outskirts. Officials set up card tables around the Champ de Mars to register people who talked excitedly about getting new homes, better than the slums where they had lived before.

In April the first camp was ready in the open desert north of the capital, designed by U.S. military, U.N. engineers and aid groups. About 7,500 people living on a golf course were chosen to move, encouraged by their camp’s manager, actor Sean Penn.

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