PORT-AU-PRINCE — In ‘The Comedians’, Graham Greene called Haiti the nightmare republic. But for the past few days in Haiti, truth has been more nighmarish than fiction after an estimated 140,000 people were killed in last week’s earthquake.
The international relief operation appears to be struggling, meaning that time is running out for the estimated 3 million Haitians affected by the disaster, people now injured, homeless, without food and water.
There seems to be little hope for those still trapped alive under the rubble as the risk of disease grows by the hour — and with each passing hour the prospect of rescue diminishes.
It’s almost a cliché to write about Haiti’s voodoo – but the dust-covered corpses lying prone in the early-morning haze took on an eerie, other-worldy aspect, only overshadowed by the sheer scale of the tragedy that left so many dead – and dying – with medical supplies absent, and medical facilities obliterated.
And the stench – the retch-inducing waft of rotting corpses, with so many thousands still under the rubble – settled over the city as dead as the heat marking the turn from dawn to morning.
Jean-Pierre, 26, said he had been digging for survivors, without food or water, or much of a break, for two solid days.
”We cannot keep going like this, we are trying to reach people, but they cannot last under the buildings.”
Bodies lay in rows or piled beside the streets, some being stacked as roadblocks. On Friday, Haitians began to dig mass graves to bury their dead, which include several leading politicians and the country’s leading Catholic cleric.
Chaos reigned on the streets of Port-au-Prince, with machete-wielding mobs blocking roads, and people all around looting whatever they could lay their hands on.
People are visibly angry and baffled at the inability of foreign governments and major international organisations to come to their assistance quickly enough.
In Delmas, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Napoleon Donat says his neighborhood needs water, “but we have tents, and the school down the road gives us a meal a day, for now anyway.”
Donat, who lived in Brooklyn for five years, thanks God that his family survived the earthquake, but lamented that “my best friend was killed.”
UN peacekeepers may struggle to keep control, with around 4000 convicts let loose after the prison was destroyed. Up to 10,000 US soldiers are set to deploy to Haiti over the coming days to try maintain law and order and help relief get through.
But the capital’s already-rickety infrastructure was pulverised by the 7.0 quake, in turn throwing sand in the cogs of the international aid operation. The sea-port destroyed, the US military took over at the international airport on Friday, but the backlog of flights meant that relief workers and supplies struggled to enter, days after the earthquake.
Sitting in Miami Airport on Friday afternoon, the departure screen listed numerous commercial flights on the regular schedule to Port-au-Prince, but all were labelled as ‘Cancelled.’
To reach the stricken Haiti capital, staff from NGO GOAL had to get to Jamaica and then jump on a jet provided by telecommunications company Digicel. Digicel has operated in Haiti since 2007, and is providing US$5million to support relief work in what is the world’s oldest black republic, founded in 1804 by freed slaves who revolted against French rule.
But when Digicel’s flights were caught in the backlog, GOAL emergency co-ordinator Brian Casey flew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the other half of the Hispaniola island alongside Haiti. From there he made a 6 hour road trip to Port-au-Prince, encountering rioting mobs in the city who are growing increasingly-angry at the hamstrung international relief response.
“The city is destroyed and the people are becoming increasingly-desperate”, he said. “Everyone here is touched by this disaster, having lost loved ones. People are getting angry, they need medical supplies, food, water – or there will be another disaster here.”
Now the road in from Santa Domingo is slowing to a crawl, with 12-18 hour journey times being reported, as some aid for Haiti is being routed through the Dominican Republic, the much-wealthier country that makes up the eastern half of the island shared with Haiti.
Haiti’s vulnerability to disaster is to a large extent attributable to decades of misrule by capricious strongmen – most notoriously Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his son “Baby Doc.”
They left the country the poorest in the western hemisphere, worse off than much of sub-Saharan Africa. Criminal gangs, often with politically-linked puppet masters, have fought for control of Port-au-Prince’s streets, prompting Brazilian-led UN troops to intervene with what critics allege as heavy-handed responses in the city’s slums.
4 storms in 2008 and Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 wiped around ¼ of the country’s already-meagre GDP. Before the Jan 12 earthquake, almost 80% of people lived on less than €1.50 per day, half did not have regular access to clean water, and the total GDP was a mere US$7billion – only around one-quarter of North Dakota’s.
Aside from apparel exports, which go tariff-free to the US, the country and its people depend on subsistence farming.
All over the city, what were once buildings lay in heaps of broken concrete, steel and dust. Everywhere dust, and government buildings slumped in the distance like giant heaps of white plaster sitting under the morning sun.
Everywhere, cinder blocks were ground into powder as they collapsed, with little sign of steel-fixings to reinforce buildings. Shoddy construction has added untold numbers to the death toll.
I remembered the words of a specialist earthquake engineer I interviewed in Kashmir, while overlooking the wreckage of the Pakistan earthquake in late 2005. “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do,” he intoned, words that ring truer today in Port-au-Prince.
And now, as we have seen so often elsewhere Port-au-Prince is a reminder that it is the least well-off and poorest governed countries that suffer the most when disaster strikes.Show