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‘No blood on my hands’

Fred Smith has seen the social media commentary suggesting he shares responsibility for the deaths of possibly hundreds of residents of Abaco shantytowns smashed by Hurricane Dorian.

And now, the prominent human rights attorney — who fought for shantytown residents to remain in communities the government planned to demolish — insists such claims are nonsensical.

“I have absolutely no regrets about having mounted and continuing to pursue on behalf of human beings cases which seek to protect and promote their rights, and I don’t consider as some of the memes and voice notes and other social media comments have been made…that I have blood on my hands,” Smith told National Review.

A man carries his belongings through the rubble of The Mudd after the passage of the storm.

“Fred Smith and the human rights association didn’t tell anybody in any shantytown to stay in the shantytown before Hurricane Dorian hit.

“That is absolute nonsense and absurdity; neither did Fred Smith or anybody from Rights Bahamas ever promote the suggestion that people should be encouraged or allowed to live in what can be regarded as squalid or unsanitary or unsafe conditions.”

Although it was unclear where the thousands of people residing in shantytowns would have gone, the Minnis administration was moving ahead aggressively with its plan to demolish such communities in New Providence and Abaco, which has six shantytowns, including The Mudd and Pigeon Peas.

But that plan was thwarted when Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson granted an injunction in August 2018 blocking the demolition of shantytown structures.

A judicial review of the government’s actions regarding shantytowns is pending.

The government had given shantytown residents on New Providence until August 10, 2018 to evacuate. The deadline for Abaco shantytowns was July 31, 2019.

In September 2018, Smith called on the government to install utility services in shantytowns on Abaco, warning Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes, who chairs the Shantytown Action Taskforce (SATF), to stop the committee’s work in the Family Islands or face being cited for contempt of court.

Piles of debris left behind in The Mudd shantytown, which was destroyed as Hurricane Dorian swept through Abaco.

“I call on the government to immediately reinstate utility services in The Mudd and Pigeon Peas and also I’d like to let Minister Foulkes know that he is going to be cited for contempt because the injunction does indeed apply to houses in the Pigeon Peas and The Mudd,” he said at the time.

“I don’t know why they think the injunction doesn’t apply there.”

Smith warned Foulkes to stop “terrorizing the people in those villages”.

Foulkes had recognized the housing challenge for shantytown residents.

“There are very little available rental units,” he said last September.

“We have a subcommittee that’s meeting that comprises of both government and private sector persons out of Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay as to how we can resolve that problem.”

Smith got his way and the task force’s work was slowed pending the outcome of the court case.

It meant that the thousands of people the government thought would be out of those areas still lived there.

The Abaco Shantytown Assessment Report 2018 stated that 3,041 people lived in the six shantytowns in Abaco: Sand Banks, Farm Road, L & H (Treasure Cay), The Mudd, Pigeon Peas and Elbow Cay.

The study surveyed 777 households and indicated that The Mudd was the most densely populated shantytown with 51.4 percent of the population, followed by Pigeon Peas with 19 percent and then Farm Road with 15.2 percent.

Back in the spotlight

The death toll from Hurricane Dorian is still not yet fully revealed, but Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands has foreshadowed it will be “staggering”.

The government still has the official death toll at 51.

Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said after a visit to Abaco last week that, based on all the information he has, hundreds of people died on that island during the Category 5 hurricane that made landfall in The Bahamas on September 1.

A Nassau Guardian team on the ground two days after the storm saw bodies in the rubble, eight more in the clinic’s morgue and more being loaded onto a trailer.

“It is a tragedy of horrific proportions,” Smith noted.

Hurricane Dorian placed the shantytown issue back in the spotlight in dramatic fashion.

Some people concluded that had Smith and Rights Bahamas not interfered with the Minnis administration’s plan to demolish the Abaco shantytowns, some lives would have been saved.

We will never know whether this is in fact the case.

Smith himself asks where the people would have moved to had that July 31, 2019 deadline stayed in place.

“Shantytowns are organic communities that have developed,” he said yesterday.

“They are not in the majority illegal. Most of the people have property rights and or immigration rights and the sensible, rational and compassionate thing for our government to do in respect of all of them is to accept that they exist and to find some way to integrate them into society… It is mind boggling to me that the PLP (Progressive Liberal Party) and the FNM (Free National Movement) government could rationally think that they could just bulldoze down the homes of upwards of 10,000 people in the various shantytowns in New Providence, Eleuthera and Abaco because where are they going to go?

“There is no suitable accommodations ready, willing and able to receive and accept them.

“And what Dorian has done is to accelerate the challenge that we face in The Bahamas by such an absurd and ridiculous policy of intending to demolish the homes of thousands of people because what we now find is what we would have been faced with had Rights Bahamas not obtained an injunction restricting the government from demolishing the homes of over 7,000 people.

“We are now faced with a real human and social problem of where will these people go? What provisions can reasonably be made for them? We are not a rich nation. That is the reason we are faced with this situation in the first place. We have allowed the situation to grow for decades.”

Uncertain fate

Smith said the decision many shantytown residents made to stay in their communities as the storm approached — despite being warned by authorities in Creole and English to leave — had nothing to do with him or Rights Bahamas.

“People make choices and unfortunately in the shantytowns they are deathly afraid of the government for the most part,” he told National Review.

“They don’t want to get into the clutches of the authorities… They preferred to face the disaster of a Cat. 5 hurricane than to put themselves at the mercy of the government that has shown itself not to have respect for the laws of The Bahamas, both PLP and FNM.”

Smith said successive governments failed to plan properly for monster storms like Dorian.

“What should have happened over the decades is a recognition by the people of Abaco and the government that these communities have been established, just like the hundreds of other communities, which were established with water, power, shelter and regulate these communities, but you don’t pretend that these communities don’t exist and take the view ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and [not] make provisions.

“We live in hurricane alley; provisions should be made for all human beings in The Bahamas for shelter in case of disaster.”

As the hurricane lashed Abaco, many residents from The Mudd and Pigeon Peas ran to the government’s complex in Marsh Harbour to save their lives.

Hundreds of people — many of them from Abaco shantytowns — have been evacuated to New Providence.

Their fate is uncertain.

On Sunday night, the government issued an immediate ban on the construction of any new buildings in the four major shantytowns on Abaco.

“The minister of housing and the environment has issued a prohibition to build order for The Mudd, Pigeon Pea, Sand Bank and Farm Road community areas located on the island of Abaco with immediate effect,” the Ministry of Housing and the Environment said in a statement.

The order, which is valid for at least six months, mandates that “no person shall erect any new building or development for the purposes of residing or carrying out any commercial activity” in the identified areas.

The ministry said the order may be extended for further periods of up to six months “as required”.

On Monday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said shantytowns will not be tolerated.

Smith sees the order as discriminatory, claiming many of the people in the shantytowns have a legitimate right to the land given that they have been on it for many years.

“I guarantee you what is happening here is an attempt indirectly to achieve what the prior attempt at demolition was, and that is to stop people from having access to their homes, building back on their property and owning their property that they have had by possessory title,” he said.

“You cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly, and no I am not advocating the construction of illegal buildings.”

Smith suggested the government make Crown land available for rebuilding.

“The government could say to the world, ‘We have upwards of 5,000 people whether in the shantytowns or not who have been dispossessed or displaced and all their property gone. We need help to provide accommodation for these people. If the world would give us aid we, the government, could provide acreage for the construction of low-cost housing or some kind of facility to accommodate these thousands of human beings that need shelter.’”

He added, “The government needs to plan for the permanent relocation of thousands of human beings in Abaco with proper facilities. Now whether that means helping them to reconstruct in some part of The Mudd or Pigeon Peas or the other shantytowns, or finding new land, or seeing if they’d move to other islands, it’s something that must be considered by the government.”

Smith also insisted he would not do anything differently if he had the opportunity to approach the shantytown matter another way.

“I remain proud of being a part of this case on their behalf, and Rights Bahamas, helping people to protect their property and constitutional rights not to be discriminated against,” he told National Review.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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