Haitians plead: `Where is the help?'

 Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.
By Roger Annis

January 15, 2010 -- Evidence of monstrous neglect of the Haitian people is mounting following the catastrophic earthquake three days ago. As life-saving medical supplies, food, water purification chemicals and vehicles pile up at the airport in Port-au-Prince, and as news networks report a massive international effort to deliver emergency aid, the people in the shattered city are wondering when they will see help.

The BBC World Service reports that Haitian officials now fear the death toll could rise to 140,000. Three million people are homeless. BBC reporter Andy Gallagher told an 8 pm (Canadian Pacific Time) broadcast tonight that he had traveled “extensively” in Port-au-Prince during the day and saw little sign of aid delivery. He said he was shown nothing but courtesy by the Haitians he encountered. Everywhere he went he was taken by residents to see what had happened to their neighbourhood, their homes and their lives. Then they asked, “Where is the help?”.

“When the rescue teams arrive”, Gallagher said, “they will be welcomed with open arms.”

Canada's CBC Radio One’s As It Happens broadcast an interview this evening with a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He said he spent the morning touring one of the hardest hit areas of the city (the district was not named), in the hills that rise from the flat plain on which sits historic Port-au-Prince. “In three hours, I didn’t see a single rescue team.”

The BBC report contrasts starkly with warnings of looting and violence that fill the airwaves of news channels such as CNN and are being voiced by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. He was asked by media in Washington why relief supplies were not being delivered by air. He answered, “It seems to me that air drops will simply lead to riots.”

Gates says that “security” concerns are impeding the delivery of aid. But Gallagher responded directly to that in his report, saying, “I’m not experiencing that.” Describing the airport, Gallagher reported, “There are plenty of materials on the ground and plenty of people there. I don’t know what the problem is with delivery.”

Nan Buzard, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, was interviewed on the same BBC broadcast about the problem with aid delivery. She implied that there were not, in fact, many supplies at the airport to be moved, that many of the planes that have been landing were filled with people, not supplies.

When pressed by the BBC host why aid was not being moved into the city, Buzard conceded she was “surprised” that it was not being airlifted in.

The BBC’s is not the only report to contradict exaggerated security concerns. The daily report on the website of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) one day after the earthquake said, “Some parts of the city are without electricity and people have gathered outside, lighting fires in the street and trying to help and comfort each other. When they saw that I was from MSF they were asking for help, particularly to treat their wounded. There was strong solidarity among people in the streets.”

An emailed report received by the Canada Haiti Action Network describes a city largely bereft of international aid. “Thus far”, it reports, “the rescue teams cluster at the high profile and safer walled sites and were literally afraid to enter the barrios. They gravitated to the sites where they had secure compounds and big buildings.

“Meanwhile, the neighbourhoods where the damage appears to be much wider, and anywhere there were loose crowds, they avoided. In the large sites, and in the nice neighbourhoods, and where the press can be found, there would be teams from every country imaginable. Dogs and extraction units with more arriving, yet with 90% or more of them just sitting around."

“Meanwhile, in the poor neighbourhoods, awash in rubble, there was not a foreigner in sight. News crews are looking for the story of desperate Haitians that are in hysterics. When in reality it is more often the Haitians that are acting calmly while the international community, the elite and politicians have melted down over the issue, and none seem to have the remotest idea what is going on.”

The report says that most of the staff of the US embassy and US AID complex (located a stone’s throw from the oceanfront) have fled and buildings are largely empty, even though the streets in the area are clear.

On January 14, the BBC broadcast an interview with Mark Stuart, a director of an orphanage in Jacmel, a city of 50,000 on Haiti's south coast, 50 km south of Port-au-Prince. Aerial footage showed catastrophic damage. Stuart appealed for international relief, saying that food and water supplies would soon run out and no aid whatsoever had arrived.

An article on the website of a Chicago publication says a trickle of aid arrived today but the road between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel is impassable.

Aid authorities must be urged to speed up their efforts to flood the earthquake zone with food, water, supplies and medical personnel. A network of relief centres fanning out from the port and airport, including air lift and parachute drops, would seem to be an obvious step. Donations to relief efforts, especially to those already delivering services, such as Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders, are crucially important.

[Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network in Vancouver. He can be reached at rogerannis [at] hotmail.com.]

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