Haiti: A week in hell

On 12 January, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, and the media joined aid agencies in scrambling to the scene. Our correspondent went too


Friday 15 January, dawn

The gates separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic look like something from a gothic novel: elaborate twisted iron, topped with barbed wire and bearing, in gold, the initials RD. They mark a vast cultural, social and economic divide. On the Dominican side, people speak Spanish, play baseball and drive on Tarmac; on Haiti's they speak French and Creole and play football; roads are largely dust and gravel. The Dominican is lush and covered in vegetation. In Haiti, by contrast, barely a tree stands. The country's once-lush forests have been razed for charcoal. Not only are we driving into a new landscape, but we also appear to be entering a more threatening world: the border guards warn new arrivals in the ruined country to beware of armed bandits.

Friday 15 January, morning

Just over an hour beyond the border Port-au-Prince begins. Barren countryside, where no building is taller than a shack and virtually no industry exists beyond subsistence farms, gives way to concrete one-storey buildings. The city was built on a flat estuary, framed by the Caribbean to its west and hills to its north and south. As the population rose from 400,000 to between two or three million, it sprawled inland.

Suddenly, roads are chaos. Buses, cars, motorbikes and multicoloured "tap-taps" compete with people and animals, filling a strip of pot-holed concrete. Horns blare and traffic crawls. It makes you understand the difficulties of operating in a country that has virtually no infrastructure.

The devastation creeps up. For a while, just a handful of buildings seem damaged. Soon, a pile of rubble replaces every 10th building; then every fifth, then every third. By the time we reach the shell-shocked city centre, whole blocks have turned to piles of concrete and dust hangs in the air.

Bodies start appearing on pavements. Some are covered with sheets; others lie exposed. Up an alley, I see dozens of corpses, laid out in neat rows. The scale is frightening. Injured people are everywhere, being carried on makeshift stretchers, their shattered limbs in cardboard splints. Police, soldiers and other forces of law and order are nowhere to be seen. The only place in the entire city where I see any UN troops today is at the collapsed Montana Hotel, where teams of rescue workers are trawling through the rubble. Is it just coincidence, I wonder, that this luxury hotel is one of the few places where foreign people may be trapped, along with Haitians, under the rubble?

Friday 15 January, afternoon

Given the TV coverage, and the failure of the security-obsessed international community so far to distribute any aid, in case victims start a riot, you could be forgiven for thinking of Haiti as a lawless hell-hole brimming with machete-wielding savages. The truth, of course, is the exact opposite. In crowded squares, where half a million are living under tarpaulins, people are friendly and hospitable. They tell awful stories, of homes destroyed and relatives killed, and constantly ask the same question: "When is help coming?"

Saturday 16 January, morning

Three guards, with machine guns, stand at the gate of Haiti's national cemetery. They are the first security forces I have seen on the streets since arriving in Port-au-Prince; they tell me they have been paid to stand there by the local mayor's office. The reason, it soon emerges, is grim practicality. Since the quake four days ago, bodies have been illegally dumped in the four-acre site. The entrances to family tombs have been kicked in and coffins shoved inside, without the $5 burial fee being paid. At the gate, a man sits with a crumpled wad of paper on which names of all the legal new arrivals have been scrawled. He counts 210. New ones arrive every five minutes, carried in makeshift coffins, or slung on the backs of lorries.

I'll never forget the scene inside. Dozens of corpses are rotting in the sunshine, in awful piles. Chickens and stray dogs run among them. Blood and faeces litter the paths. The sheer hellishness of this snowballing human crisis starts to sink in. From the Carrefour district of Port-au-Prince we hear reports of piles of bodies being picked up in lorries and driven to mass graves on the outskirts of town. There is precious little dignity left for the living in Haiti, a colleague observes, and certainly none to spare for the dead.

Saturday 16 January, afternoon

We come across a team of British rescue workers extracting trapped victims from the rubble. They have just saved a middle-aged woman, cutting through concrete with pickaxes and hammers, because their heavy-lifting equipment is stranded overseas. The team began working yesterday. They could have got here 24 hours earlier, but their plane was blocked from landing on the crowded runway of Port-au-Prince airport, where air-traffic control is being managed by the Americans. Today, a French aid flight containing an entire inflatable hospital was also turned back.

These lost hours cost lives. There is just a small window in which to find survivors after an earthquake, and in a couple of days' time, the team says it will almost certainly be forced to call it quits, "though we'll keep going as long as we can". Their working hours aren't just limited by transport. Normally, after a major disaster, the team works 24 hours a day, catching sleep in shifts. But here, thanks to the supposed security threat, they are being transported back to base at dusk. "We have to do what we're told," one tells me, "but it's perfectly safe here. I feel more threatened in Romford on a Saturday night."

Sunday 17 January, morning

Five days from the quake, and I have yet to see a single US soldier on the streets, though thousands are supposed to have landed in the capital. A few UN troops have begun sporadic patrols, and a handful of water trucks appear in the city's squares. They are met with orderly queues, rather than the chaotic mob violence we were told to expect.

The public is growing frustrated, though. With no food or water, victims are resorting to looting, leading to localised outbreaks of violence in the town centre. Their biggest fear is armed robbery. The city's prison has collapsed, and thousands of criminals are roaming the streets. In Pétionville, a corpse is smouldering on the pavement. Passers-by tell me it belonged to a thief who was arrested for shooting the owner of a juice stall in the head. Police turned him over to an angry crowd, who beat him up, stuck a car tyre over his head, filled it with petrol and dropped a match. You can see rings of metal wire, from the inside of the tyre, still hanging around the dead robber's neck.

Monday 18 January

Where's the aid? There's an influx of fresh food from the countryside to street markets, but it's available only to people who have money. Long-promised free handouts are still apparently unable to get from the airport to the city centre. On the way to the airport, to find out what's going on, I finally see my first US soldier. He is guarding the American embassy, where a huge crowd has gathered, holding scrawled CVs and ID cards, seeking work as drivers or interpreters.

Haiti's airport is a study in dysfunctionality. I am there for an hour, and see just a couple of flights land. Huge piles of food and water are sitting on the runway, cooking in the sun. No one knows who is in charge. US troops say the UN has responsibility. UN spokesmen pass the buck to Haiti's government, which is holding cabinet meetings on plastic chairs in a shack near by. With no flights able to land at night on the unlit runway, landing planes remains a source of enormous tension. At the weekend, according to new reports, French and US officials traded fisticuffs in the makeshift control tower. In the wake of this row, American soldiers are talking PR. They say they've been ordered to wear weapons on their backs, so as not to appear threatening, and remove their ubiquitous wrap-around sunglasses and smile sweetly when dealing with locals.

Tuesday 19 January

Normality is relative when you are still walking past dead bodies on the pavement every couple of hours, but things are perhaps improving. I see food, water and tarpaulins being handed out, and Black Hawk helicopters in the skies.

People unable to get to aid distribution posts are still in trouble, though. And the news agenda is shifting to Haiti's orphans. There were 380,000 of them, even before the earthquake. Now the figure may be as much as a million. A lucky few are being shipped away to adoptive parents in the US and Europe.

At the Foyer de Sion orphanage in Pétionville, I encounter squalor. Twenty-eight girls and boys are down to their last few bags of beans and rice. They are thirsty, but have no drinking water. Bedrooms resemble a prison, with eight or more per room sleeping on filthy bunks. Excrement lines the floors. I do not see a single toy. The manager says a van arrived at the orphanage that morning, from a Mormon church in Salt Lake City, and whisked 10 of them away to new lives in the US. But something about the Foyer de Sion doesn't smell quite right: there is no way, even before the quake, it was ever the comfortable place pictured on its website, which is perused by would-be adoptive parents.

Adoption can be a lucrative business, and the Foyer de Sion requires would-be parents to pay fees of almost $20,000 to rescue a child. It isn't entirely clear where this money goes. In the months and years to come, someone must take a long, hard look at Haiti's orphanage industry.

Wednesday 20 January

Cité Soleil is Port-au-Prince's most notorious slum, famously poor and full of street gangs. And while food and water are now starting to reach the rest of the city, residents here complain that the government and aid agencies are ignoring their plight.

The problem, again, is preconceptions about security: at the weekend, several gang leaders who had escaped from prison fought gun battles for control of their former stamping ground. But locals have fought back. They say they held a committee meeting and decided to prevent gangsters from returning. Several were lynched, including a notorious gang leader called Blade. This, it seems, is what now passes for justice.

Thursday 21 January

On the road out of Port-au-Prince, I see thousands of refugees crammed into lorries, cars and buses that have been laid on by the government. A massive exodus is under way by people who have reluctantly decided to return to their family homes in the countryside.

In the long run, Haiti could perhaps benefit from this demographic shift. Too much of the country's industry is centred around its capital, which – though small, crowded and chaotic – is the only place Haitians can hope to find gainful employment.

Leaving the country, you pass fields where, as little as a decade ago, before a US trade embargo, coffee plantations made Haiti the world's third biggest coffee producer. You see the ruins of the sugar plantations that made it the richest island in the Antilles. They could rise again, particularly if the country's $1bn debt is dropped, and erase the memory of an era of greed, incompetence and mishandled natural disaster.

Miracles in Haiti as survivors found one week on

Emmanuel Buso, 21, was pulled from the rubble of his bedroom 10 days after the initial quake. The Israeli rescue team reported that he was in surprisingly good shape, though dangerously dehydrated. His mother believed he had been killed by the collapse of their home.

An 84-year-old woman was pulled from her home by relatives 10 days after the quake. Doctors at the General Hospital reported that she was in a critical condition and was receiving oxygen and fluids.

Kiki, an eight-year-old boy, was pulled from his destroyed home in the Nazan area of Port-au-Prince by a US team. Hours later, his 10-year-old sister was also rescued. The US responders found the pair more than a week after the quake.

More than a week after the quake, a group of neighbours rescued an 11-year-old girl from a collapsed building. The child was pulled from the debris without the use of specialist rescue equipment.

Ena Zizi, 69, a domestic worker, was rescued by a team of Mexican specialists seven days after the first quake.

Lozama Hotteline, 26, was rescued from the carnage of a destroyed supermarket in central Port-au-Prince on Tuesday. Rescue workers reported that she was in high spirits, "smiling and singing hymns".

Benito Revolus, a 23-year-old carpenter, was saved after five days of being pinned to the floor of a destroyed hospital. Benito surprised doctors at Médecins sans Frontières who considered three days to be the maximum time someone with his injuries could survive.

Greg Walton

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