Families in turmoil: 'I phone and phone, but it never rings...'

John Lichfield joins desperate expats in Paris waiting for news of the loved ones they fear are lost for ever

On the elegant Boulevard de Villiers in central Paris yesterday, an anxious crowd besieged a small, untidy ground-floor office. Grasping passports or half-filled forms or photographs or scraps of paper with addresses or telephone numbers, the crowd – mostly men, but a scattering of women with small children – sought news; reassurance; financial help. In some cases, they admitted, they simply needed to feel that they were doing something; or they just wanted to be near to their fellow countrymen.

A small, scuffed brass sign beside the door read: "Consulat de Haiti".

After queuing for hours, many of them turned away, frustrated and helpless. Some wanted to go to Haiti to search for relatives but did not have the money. Others wanted to bring back family members but didn't have the correct papers. Some of the younger men were illegal immigrants who knew they could not go home and knew that the Consulate could do nothing for them. But where else could they go?

"My wife and three daughters are there. I have to get to Haiti, I have to bring my daughters to France, if they are alive," said Joseph Saint Ilus, 48, eyes gleaming with tears. "But I don't have passports for my daughters and all they can give me here is this."

He waved a four-page form which listed the sheaf of documents he needed to apply for emergency papers for his daughters. "Who can help me? I can't get all this. I don't know whether my daughters are dead or alive but I must go to Haiti. I must go to Haiti to bring them here. If they have been spared, and I pray to God they have been spared, there is nothing left in Haiti for them."

Mr Saint Ilus, who has lived legally in France for 10 years, is part of the 90,000 strong Haitian diaspora in France: the largest Haitian exile community in the world. He was convinced that he could find a flight to go home in the next few days but he didn't want to leave France unless he could be sure of bringing his daughters – aged 19, 16 and 13 – back with him.

"I have tried to telephone but the line does not even ring. No one can get through no one has any news," said Mr Saint Ilus. "Everyone here is in the same situation. We cannot carry on with our lives thinking that our family may be dead or injured or homeless. But we know nothing, and we can find out nothing, except the terrible pictures that everyone sees."

Joseph Grissier, 38, was still queuing for his turn to talk to a consular official. He also planned to go back to Haiti. He wanted to know if the consulate had any news of his small township 12 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

"I have brothers and sisters and cousins there. Scores of them. But I can find out nothing about what has happened to the communities to the west of Port-au-Prince... To know nothing is terrible. To see the pictures of this calamity and not to be able to reach your family is terrible. I have phoned and phoned but the numbers don't even ring..."

Jean-Gary Cadet, 26, has been in France illegally for four years. "I find work when I can but it is hard and often I am unemployed," he said. "I came here to earn money to send back to my family – to my parents and brothers and sisters – but now I don't know whether they are alive. I cannot go back. I have no papers. I would like to go back, like these other people, but I have no papers."

The French government has announced that it will not expel illegal immigrants from Haiti for the time being. Its generosity does not extend, however, to allowing "sans papiers" such as Mr Cadet to go home and then return to France. So why did he come to the Consulate? He shrugged. "To see if anyone knew something. To be with other Haitians. To do something," he said.

After a pause, Mr Cadet added: "But I would like you to say how grateful I am to the French people, to the British people, to the American people, to all the peoples of the world for what they are trying to do for Haiti."