Fear gives way to fury as aid convoys stall

Guy Adams reports from the streets of Port-au-Prince where the survivors must fight for their lives once again

Saturday 16 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Twisted, draped in dusty rags or piled into mounds, the dead are strewn around the streets of Haiti's ruined capital. Some have nothing covering them, left simply to rot in the sun. City workers finally began the grisly task of picking them up yesterday, using vast dumper trucks equipped with automated loaders.

People are comparing Port-au-Prince to a scene from Armageddon, but that doesn't really do justice to the sheer, breathtaking scale of the horror on its streets. When you finally grow used to the stench of rotting flesh and open sewage, or dust-covered crowds roaming the pavements scavenging for water or food, another terrible sight will emerge from the tangled rubble.

The death toll from the biggest earthquake to hit the region for 200 years may reach 200,000, the interior minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime told Reuters. "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," he said.

The government said 40,000 bodies were still buried beneath the rubble. The sprawling metropolis of 2 million people has been pulled to pieces, with 1.5 million thought to be homeless. Electricity, water and sewage networks no longer function, and the most basic infrastructure is in disarray. This humanitarian crisis will grow worse before it improves.

Aramick Louis, the secretary of state for public safety, warned that, with gangs already beginning to take to the streets, the government's most immediate fear now is that frayed tempers will lead to a complete breakdown in law and order. Yesterday grief and shock gave way to impatience and anger at the failure of any meaningful aid to arrive, despite apocalyptic images of outdoor morgues and bodies in states of rigor mortis which are being beamed around the world. Frantic for help, local people piled up corpses to create roadblocks, hoping to shock the outside world into a speedier reaction. "The situation in the city is very difficult and tense," said Salavat Mingaliyev, head of a Russian search-and-rescue team.

Outside the now-ruined presidential palace in the city centre, a 1,000-strong crowd gathered. They stood behind a security cordon keeping them away from Red Cross lorries, with workers afraid to distribute supplies in case it sparked pandemonium.

"I am furious. We have been here for four days, and haven't seen anything: no food, no water, no tents," said Jean Claude Hillaire. "I am so hungry. And want to know why these people have no aid. Why is nothing coming? We've had nothing from the US, nothing from the international community. We feel angry and abandoned: 20,000 people are sleeping in this park, and no one is helping us.

"There are hundreds of bodies lying in the street. The world needs to see this suffering, and see this death, and tell its leaders that something must be done to help, right now."

With a nod to Haiti's history, as the first former slave nation to gain independence, he added: "I'm especially angry with Barack Obama. The people of this country, Haiti were the first black people who put a mark on liberty. We now need help from the first black president. We don't need it in four, five or 20 days. We need it today, right now."

The city's port, roughly a mile away, is conspicuously empty of the vast aid vessels that have been promised by world leaders. Roads are clogged and in some places impassable. Food and water supplies remain stranded at a seemingly dysfunctional airfield on the outskirts of town. "It's utter chaos at the airport," said Mark Pearson, of the British charity Shelterbox, who was yesterday waiting for supplies to land. "The priority at the moment is still search and rescue and then after that aid, so obviously there is frustration. People are hunting around for water. That's the big need."

Every patch of park, square or wasteland in the city is now filled with makeshift tents, sometimes just made of plastic bags, in which the homeless are waiting, with their dead and wounded, for help to arrive. A few hundred yards from them is the Champs de Mars, Haiti's equivalent of Hyde Park. I met Marie Cayo, a three-year-old girl with a bandaged head-wound, whose mother, Souvenir, was killed in Tuesday's quake. "Marie was actually lucky," said her cousin Nicolas, who is among 20 of Marie's family members sleeping underneath a small tarpaulin. "Souvenir was killed when the house fell down on them. But because Marie was small, people were able to pull her out of a gap in the rubble. We took Souvenir's body to the cemetery and buried her ourselves in a coffin. It was the best we could do."

Bodies that have not been claimed are being left on street corners, or arranged in lines in side streets. In one alley, I counted 30 corpses arranged in lines covered in cloth, but nearer the port, the dead are simply being left in piles, scores strong. Swarms of flies are starting to pay them attention, along with packs of stray dogs. "We have been sleeping in a square since Tuesday," said Joseph Marc Antoine, who I spoke to in the streets surrounding the palace. "We have nothing. I still hear people screaming from the middle of the debris, but we can't do anything about it. The smell of dead people and garbage is everywhere. And it's not good."

Adding to the sense of foreboding is a growing threat of infectious disease such as typhoid or dysentery and a rapidly disintegrating security situation. Many people are now wearing bandanas. Most of Port-au-Prince is already a total no-go area after dark, and there are rumours of armed gangs setting up road-blocks to demand money and supplies from anyone attempting to pass. Petty crime and looting have now become rampant, partly because the city's prison collapsed, freeing several thousand inmates, including many gang-members, but also because many survivors are so desperate to get their hands on food or water. Small bands of young men bearing machetes were seen in some areas of the city, presumably hunting for supplies of food.

The Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive yesterday granted control of the airport to the US, where up to 10,000 US troops are supposed to be arriving to help to distribute aid. Admiral Mike Mullen, the top American military officer, said that they would also help prevent an explosion of rioting among desperate survivors. Robert Gates the US Defence Secretary, said their first task will be to distribute aid as quickly as possible "so that people don't, in their desperation, turn to violence".

Hillary Clinton will today visit Haiti to meet the President René Préval and relief workers. Emergency supplies will be packed on to the aircraft carrying the Secretary of State and she expects to take home American citizens who want to be evacuated.

Amid fears of unrest and possible political violence breaking out, Barack Obama spoke to his Haitian counterpart for 30 minutes yesterday. But the crisis which both leaders are now confronting is likely to be defined by one issue: poverty.

In a nation where more than half the population live on less than a dollar a day, the mechanics of government are creaky at best, so relief efforts are stuttering. Critically, airlifted supplies are stuck at Haiti's airport, miles out of town. The runway there has no lights, so is open only during daylight, and has now become so congested that scores of flights are being blocked from landing.

The UN would normally be expected to bear the brunt of organising the relief effort. But 100 UN officials are still missing, leaving an organisational vacuum. Blue-helmeted troops are visible in smarter, and safe parts of town, such as Petionville. In the flattened barrios, where most of the casualties have been felt, they seem non-existent.

A representative of the Boston-based health charity, Partners in Health, summed up the mood of exasperated aid agencies yesterday, when she recalled requesting UN help to create a secure area to set up a field hospital in the city centre. Their request was denied, she says, because under current constraints, "this isn't a priority".

In the absence of food aid, people who haven't been able to salvage anything to eat from their ruined homes are being forced to rely on street vendors, who are selling fruit and basic supplies at vastly inflated prices. But since many of them only have the money that was in their pocket when Tuesday's earthquake struck, there is little they can afford.

"We have to make do with what we have, and use whatever else is in our pocket to buy things on the street," said Nicolas Cayo. The most crucial commodity is water. Groups of people walk the streets carrying empty plastic bottles, searching for broken water pipes, or even streams in gutters, to fill them from.

A handful of rescue workers who have managed to reach Port-au-Prince are focusing on saving the lives of people still trapped in rubble. One of the biggest relief efforts is taking place at the Hotel Montana, which was the city's most expensive luxury hotel, but was among the several blocks-worth of buildings in the Bourdon district to have simply caved in on itself when vast areas of hillside disappeared.

Roughly 200 guests are unaccounted for. At lunchtime yesterday, a French aid worker said that eight had been identified, still alive and well, beneath the rubble, 24 hours earlier. "We had seven Americans and one Haitian buried inside. We've been able to speak to them and got four out, two from the reception area and two from an elevator," he said. "One is now dead, and two are left inside. They are about 10 metres away, but reaching them is difficult as we have to get through three walls." News crews were waiting around the scene, but hope for the survivors is slipping.

In the coming days, a refugee crisis may also start to afflict Haiti. As you approach the capital on the road from neighbouring Dominican Republic, a vast cloud of dust becomes visible. Soon it becomes clear that it comes from vehicles jammed nose-to-tail, with thousands of people heeding the government advice to get out into the countryside. Some of the injured are walking with their arms in splints made from cardboard boxes, and bandages from torn clothes. Some are being carried on stretchers made from old pallets.

Most are aiming to reach the countryside, which was largely untouched by the disaster. Still more are headed for the border with the Dominican Republic, where they hope to reach functioning hospitals, together with aid organisations who are stranded on the other side.

But no one knows what will happen to them once they get there. Or whether they will ever return.

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