No resting place for the Haiti victims

Port-au-Prince is a city of wanderers with nowhere to go – even for the dead

The bodies kept coming. By yesterday afternoon, the Port-au-Prince morgue was full, but still the corpses arrived. They came stacked high in pick-up trucks, they came in piles in police vehicles, and when the mortuary at the hospital could take no more, police and their helpers simply began piling them up outside. Guy Laroche, the hospital director, said he had no idea how many more would come, but he had already received about 1,500.

They were thrown together like commodities with nothing like a shroud or a covering garment, as the Haitian Red Cross had run out of body bags. The Red Cross International Committee said 3,000 more were on the way, but it will take a far bigger number than that to accommodate Port-au-Prince's dead – 40,000? 50,000? – with countless more corpses, stiff and starting to decompose, still visible or half-visible yesterday under the rubble of the wrecked city, or piled into vehicles, or lying scattered by the side of the road.

They ranged from tiny children next to schools, to women in rubble-strewn streets with stunned expressions frozen on their faces. Some were covered by a white cloth or a tarpaulin. Some were covered by nothing, in the sweltering tropical heat. "Things are usually not as bad as the news says. Sincerely, this is worse," a Port-au-Prince resident posted on Twitter. "Dead bodies everywhere. City starting to smell like rotting flesh."

Dust-covered bodies were being dragged along the roads by people trying at least to find somewhere they might decently leave them, while the question of burial – or the lack of burial – was adding to the anguish. "I just want my wife's corpse," said Lionnel Dervil, 38, a money-changer and father of four children who was trying to get in to the Medecins Sans Frontieres compound to examine a pile of bodies, and was being ignored as doctors frantically tended to those still living who had streamed in. "I just want my wife's corpse," he repeated. "I know they are busy tending to the survivors, but there is a room full of bodies that I cannot get to."

Some survivors were attempting to carry dead family members to nearby hills for impromptu burials, prompting Brazil's military, the biggest contingent among UN peacekeepers, to warn the practice could lead to an epidemic. That was the scale of Port-au-Prince's distress last night: it needed not just emergency shelter, food, water, electricity and medical supplies, it needed emergency cemetery capacity.

Many of the living were faring scarcely better, as the first signs of the massive international relief operation began to dribble in to Haiti's capital – infinitely slowly, it seemed to the beleaguered citizens.

There were still no signs of organised rescue operations, and 48 hours after the earthquake had struck, Haitians themselves, desperate fathers, neighbours, volunteers, were still clawing at chunks of concrete with bare hands and battering it with sledgehammers, trying to free those buried alive.

"Recovery efforts are under way but SMALL," said a Twitter post. "A person here or there. No heroics. Just desperation." Some observers thought the contingent of UN peacekeepers around the city seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of the recovery task ahead – and possibly by the fact that UN headquarters had been wiped out in the first shock.

"We just don't know what to do," a Chilean peacekeeper said. "You can see how terrible the damage is. We have not been able to get into all the areas." It was the same story with the police. "All the policemen are busy rescuing and burying their own families," said tile factory owner Manuel Deheusch. "They don't have the time to patrol the streets."

What most of the surviving able-bodied citizens of Port-au-Prince seemed to be doing yesterday was wandering, wandering shellshocked through the shattered town, looking for food, water or medical supplies. "The streets are crowded," said another Twitter post. "Hundreds of thousands of people without homes. People walking everywhere." And then a few minutes later: "Many people praying as they walk." The citizens were fearful of going near quake-damaged buildings so stayed in the middle of the road and their very act of doing so was slowing the transport of food and other aid, worsening what the UN was already calling "a logistical nightmare".

Yet from the point of view of people with broken arms and legs and fractured skulls and crushed bodies, it was a continuing medical nightmare yesterday. Severe damage to at least eight Port-au-Prince hospitals made it nearly impossible to treat the thousands of injured, or prevent outbreaks of disease, and at Port-au-Prince's Hotel Villa Creole, furniture was used as stretchers and hotel guests with no medical training worked as paramedics.

Judithe Jacques, who brought her mother, Marguerite, in with a broken knee, fought back tears. "Where are the doctors? We expected doctors," she said. "The hospitals are full, and the people who go there lose their minds."