PORT-AU-PRINCE — Rachel Voltaire shuffled disconsolately on a narrow, rubble-strewn lane which runs alongside a camp set up to shelter 700 Haitian survivors of the January 12 earthquake. The area is called Delmas, one of Port-au-Prince’s worst-hit suburbs. Buildings lie flattened, and the locals say that many bodies remain underneath.
Ms Voltaire’s story is a harsh mix of tragedy and Kafkaesque catch-22 that makes her downbeat demeanour all the more understandable. “ I was kicked out of the US coz I didn’t have no green card”, she drawled.
She arrived back in Haiti just days before the earthquake, her five children split between cousins in Georgia and an ex-husband in Miami. “I ain’t got family left here, more than twenty were killed in the earthquake. My mom, my sisters, their kids, everyone.”
She has savings in Citibank, but all the branches in Port-au-Prince were destroyed. “My ex sent me fifty dollars, but the CMA (a Haitian version of Western Union) doesn’t have no cash, so I can’t get my fifty bucks,” she explained . “What’m I gonna do?” “Are those guys gonna help?”, pointing at the GOAL volunteers pacing through the squalid camp to see what the people need, and how it can be delivered.
Paul Kelly is a civil engineer from Louth. He tells the ‘community leaders’ to draw up a list of families staying at the camp as soon as possible, so the aid agency can allocate shelter, food and hygiene kit donated by the Irish and US governments.
The previous day (Wednesday), GOAL carried out one of the first aid deliveries conducted by a NGO since the earthquake. With enough material for 300 families, the atmosphere went from anticipation to tension as word spread down the hilly streets in Turgeau district that some international aid had at last arrived.
UN peacekeepers from Sri Lanka accompanied the delivery, tasked with ensuring the security of aid workers as they distributed the material. “Back, back – monsieur s’il vous plait!” echoed around the 10m x 6m square where three narrow streets met.
Fearing a deluge of needy Haitians if the distribution took place in a wider, open-air location, aid agencies need to carry out their work at places where crowd management is easier.
Port-au-Prince can be dangerous at the best of times, but with hundreds of thousands of traumatised earthquake victims seeking food, water, shelter, medication and security, amid a stodgily-slow international relief effort, the danger levels for foreigners transporting much-needed goods goes up.
Men have been setting up vigilante groups to protect themselves and their families as they sleep en masse in the open. 4000 escaped prisoners have roamed the city since the earthquake, and homeless Haitians are afraid. Close to the once-magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral in the city centre, a charred corpse lay contorted on the street. Burnt black, the face bore the horror of a man being burnt alive. Apparently this was an escaped convict killed as a warning to others, not to steal or attack the displaced.
The remains of the destroyed cathedral towered above, the steeple having crashed through the roof, trapping unknown numbers of religious and lay below, attending a choir practice that evening. Aid workers on the ground have been doing their best to meet needs and are growing frustrated. The clogged airport and damaged seaport restricts the delivery of the levels of mass aid cargo that is necessary. Brazilian-led UN peacekeepers and US marines will hopefully ensure that aid can be delivered safely.
But some relief work is not being carried out with sufficient planning or care. On Thursday I saw two truckloads of rice being simply fired out the back of the lorries, onto to the streets, sparking a near-riot among those present to pick up the goods.
In the first instance, the truck parked outside a temporary clinic set up to treat the some of the thousands of wounded. The vehicle stopped on a steep hill and men threw the rice onto the street below, despite heavy traffic. The truck then slid back and across the road, nearly ploughing into other cars and pedestrians, who rushed to try get some of the material.
Then again, many Haitians have not seen any aid. In seven different places across the capital, I was told that I was the first foreigner they had seen, a week and more after the earthquake. “What you goin do for us?” said Andre Whettu.
A crowd of about fifteen immediately gathered round, and though no intimidation was intended, the agitation in his voice was clear. “Nobody has been here since the earthquake, its been ten days. We ain’t doin so good”, he said in the lilting Caribbean-American accent that marks out those Haitians who have spent time in the US. Most people speak a snappy, staccato form of Creole French as their lingua franca at home.
Rachel Voltaire ain’t doing so good either. She walked back over, bent on telling me a few more things that she didn’t get to say while being interviewed earlier.
“I have an eight-month old baby in Miami, but because I was deported, I cannot get back to see my little girl. I know one guy who didn’t even have a passport, but he got outta here to Miami. I wanna do that. How do I do that?”Show