On the streets: 'We need aid now, today. Yesterday, even'

Bodies are piled everywhere in the capital as over-stretched hospitals become desperate for new supplies
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The Independent US

Wrapped in filthy bandages, Paule Wadeline uses a tiny voice to describe the moment she lost her home, all of her possessions and her entire family. Like those in several entire blocks in the Del Mar neighbourhood of Haiti's capital, her concrete dwelling collapsed within seconds of Tuesday's quake, turning it to one of the ubiquitous piles of rubble that now litter every district of the battered city.

"She remembers being helped from the ruins by a stranger," says her doctor, Jean Jazon. "After that, she has no memory. The man who carried her to hospital saw no survivors, and said seven people died there. That means all of the family was killed, including her husband and their five-year-old daughter. No relatives have come looking for her, or bringing food, so we think she probably has no one left."

Dr Jazon runs me through the list of Mrs Wadeline's injuries, translating from the 25-year-old woman's whispered Creole. She is lying in a small bed, naked except from a blood-stained sheet that barely covers her waist. Her head is bandaged. She has a broken arm, a huge open gash on one leg, feet that are swollen and covered in cuts, and a left thigh that was smashed to smithereens and is now strapped to a wooden plank.

"We've run out of splints and plaster, so the plank is the best we could do," says Dr Jazon. "It keeps the leg still. There are so many broken bones here and so many cuts, that we have to get by. We are down to critical levels of antibiotics and painkillers. And we desperately need basic supplies like bandages."

The City Med hospital, where Dr Jazon has been working without a break since late on Monday, is usually a maternity facility, with room for just a dozen patients. Today, it's one of the few hospitals still open for business. Patients lie on mattresses in the corridors, or sit shoulder to shoulder in the unlit waiting room.

For now, the doctors are getting by. But only just. New patients requesting drugs are being turned away. They have no electricity. Fuel for the emergency generator is so low that it can be turned on for only an hour at a time. "We urgently need aid to arrive," says Dr Jazon. "I can't say how urgently. Not tomorrow, today. Yesterday, even. But so far, nothing is getting through. Do you know when it might actually come?"

Across Port-au-Prince, variations of the same question are on everyone's lips. Where is the aid? Six long days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the city to pieces, despite the promises of world leaders and the millions of pounds pledged by charitable foreigners, food, water, fuel and medicine are still not reaching the streets where they are most needed.

If help doesn't arrive soon, Dr Jazon says wounds will get hopelessly infected. Among his patients is 17-year-old Ange Cherie, whose entire head is covered by yellowing bandages that desperately need replacing. "She was in bed when the quake happened, and fell three floors through her building," he says. At other hospitals, doctors short of antibiotics are said to be amputating limbs to prevent gangrene.

Amid the chaos, it's difficult to know what the final death toll will be. Port-au-Prince's vast illegally built slums, where all but 400,000 of the city's two to three million residents live on steep hillsides, are among the worst-hit areas. Many simply slipped down the hillside. But because inhabitants sleep in the buildings in shifts, and their presence is largely undocumented, no one has any idea how many people were there when the quake struck.

The city awoke yesterday to bright sunlight. But hope of a new dawn turned to anger when crowds sleeping rough in every square, park and patch of wasteland realised that the promised hospital ships and aircraft carriers full of supplies are still moored a few miles off the coast, unwilling or unable to enter the damaged port.

Vast aid shipments are sitting at the city's small and hopelessly stretched airport. If you can get there, then some parcels are apparently being handed out by US paratroopers. If you can't, then hard luck. Most of the supplies have been cooking in the sun.

In the city centre, where the humanitarian situation is at its worst, the same is true of thousands of dead bodies, which are still lying in the streets, and are starting to decay. When I arrived here on Friday, the pervading smell of excrement mixed with death was evident only in the most crowded neighbourhoods. Now it is everywhere. "The smell is getting very, very bad," warned Ralph Chevry, one of Haiti's most prominent businessmen and philanthropists, who has been co-ordinating relief efforts. "We are starting to become very worried about infectious diseases, particularly dysentery, cholera and malaria. The dead bodies are becoming one of our main problems. They have begun trying to move some of them away, but it is a huge job. There are just so many."

Lorries have been shipping corpses to mass graves on the outskirts of town, where there isn't even time to photograph them – to aid identification at some later date – before they are interred. Luckier victims (if lucky is the right word) are being carried round the city by relatives hoping eventually to give them a proper burial.

Over the radio, the only functioning source of information available, Haitians are being reliably informed that the US already has several thousand soldiers on the ground. But if these troops were flooding the streets yesterday, then I certainly didn't see them. "We heard President Obama saying we will not be forsaken, but look around. Where are the soldiers?" asked Joseph Claude Macayo, who has been camped with 20,000 others outside the presidential palace.

Mr Macayo's old home is still standing, just. But he's terrified of returning in case of aftershocks. Another aftershock hit the city at 11am yesterday. "All my family is alive, apart from one cousin, and we have enough food and water for now, but not for ever," he says.

Basic foodstuffs, and some fruit, can still be bought. But prices are creeping up, and many victims have only the cash they were carrying when the quake struck. Hoping to find cheaper supplies, tens of thousands are heading for the countryside. But since petrol supplies in Port-au-Prince have run out, transport is tricky. Drivers of "tap-tap" vans, the multicoloured collective taxis that are one of the country's most important forms of transport, have raised prices to $10 per trip, an increase of 2,000 per cent. Anyone unable to afford the fee, a fortnight's wages for many Haitians, is forced to join long crowds of pedestrians blocking major exit roads.

It is hardly surprising that fear of crime and civil disorder has been growing. It is one of the major reasons US officials cite for delays in distributing aid on the streets, saying that military presence is required to prevent a riot when supplies are dumped in central Port-au-Prince. If help doesn't arrive soon, anger and anxiety will create their own security problems.

In truth, Port-au-Prince now has two faces. By day, central districts are safe, and very occasionally you see some of Haiti's 7,000-strong police force patrolling the streets. At night, it's a different matter.Five thousand of the country's most dangerous prisoners escaped from the city's prison.

Victims buried underneath rubble can still be heard shouting for help. But heavy lifting equipment is still stranded in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. At the Fort Dimanche police station, Mr Chevry said yesterday that 30 officers are buried in an underground chamber, and have been firing their pistols to attract attention. But time is running out. Without proper machinery it will, as he put it, take a miracle to reach them.

Eyes of the world on Port-au-Prince

"I don't know how much longer we can hold out. We need food, we need medical supplies, we need medicine, we need vitamins and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently"

US missionary

"We have already collected around 50,000 dead bodies. We anticipate there will be between 100,000 and 200,000 dead in total, although we will never know the exact number"

Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime

"The scene in Port-au-Prince is inconceivable. Bodies line the streets and millions of people are walking with nowhere to go. As of yesterday afternoon, there were no aid organisations that I could see"

Blogger 'Ellen' in Haiti

"This is a crisis of unspeakable magnitude. It's normal for every Haitian to help. This is not charity"

Milero Cedamou, after being praised for delivering water

"There's just an unbelievable spirit among the Haitian people. And while that earthquake destroyed a lot, it didn't destroy their spirit"

Former US President George Bush

"There is no God and no miracle. How could he do this to us?"

Remi Polevard, a Port-au-Prince man whose five children were killed

"Pictures can get out instantly... and that's important because the world needs to know. But physically getting tons and tons of equipment and food and water is not as instant as Twitter or Skype or 24-hour television news"

Emilia Casella, World Food Program

"I will give anything to get out of here"

Yves Manes, resident

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