Posted on November 29, 2004

Haitians In A Vise Of Nature, Politics

Gary Marx, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25

Two months after one of Haiti’s worst natural disasters, residents are struggling to rebuild their lives in this chaotic and desolate city where schools and hospitals remain closed, thousands of people are homeless, and crops and livestock have been devastated.

On Sept. 18, Tropical Storm Jeanne sent a 10-foot wall of water across Gonaives, a coastal city of 200,000 people about 100 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. At least 1,900 people died, officials say; 900 are missing and presumed dead.

There still is no running water or electricity in the city, and hundreds of people left homeless are living with friends or relatives.

Fraine Voltaire, his wife and three children sleep on the bare, concrete rooftop of a neighbor’s home. A thin bedspread serves as their mattress.

“We are living like animals,” said Voltaire, 37.

Relief efforts have been hampered by Haiti’s political conflict, pitting supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who left Haiti during a violent uprising in February, against the fragile, U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

Thousands of armed rebels and former Haitian soldiers who led the revolt against Aristide dominate Gonaives and much of the country. At least 84 people have died in clashes since late September, including 12 police officers killed by pro-Aristide militants demanding his return. Aristide has been living in South Africa.

Earlier this month, more than 3,000 tons of emergency food rations were left stranded in Port-au-Prince after dockworkers fled from pro-Aristide militants.

Food convoys also have been looted on the bone-jarring, four-hour journey by road from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, where an armed rebel group known as the Liberation Front began its uprising against Aristide and where it holds sway.

Even so, Guy Gauvreau, director of the UN World Food Program in Haiti, said starvation has been averted by delivery of nearly 2,350 metric tons of food — enough to feed 40,000 families — to Gonaives and surrounding areas since the flooding.

Relief groups also are providing thousands of residents clean drinking water each day. The effort has been credited with helping prevent an outbreak of cholera and other diseases, but respiratory, skin and stomach ailments have risen because of overflowing sewers and fetid waters.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies set up a 100-bed mobile hospital to treat city residents until Gonaives’ main hospital can be repaired. The medical equipment later will be donated to the local hospital, which was pounded by the flooding but could reopen by late December.

“The hospital equipment was washed away,” said Annette Bokkenheuser, a representative of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Eighty percent of the city was hit by the floods. The situation is quite desperate.”

Despite the presence of about 550 UN peacekeepers in Gonaives, Voltaire and other residents say they are too scared to collect relief supplies because the rebels often steal it from them to resell.

‘The police don’t exist’

“The foreigners do what they can to help us,” said Herbert Vernet, 61, as he waited to receive treatment for a foot infection at the Red Cross hospital. “The Haitian government is responsible for controlling these guys. There is no government. The police don’t exist.”

In February, rebel forces in Gonaives killed 14 Haitian police officers during the initial stage of the uprising against Aristide. They also looted and torched the police station.

Gonaives has had three police chiefs in the past month, including one commander who fled the city Nov. 6 after learning rebels were set to attack the new station.

The rebels hauled away computers, a fax machine and other equipment along with guns and ammunition. The police are left with a handful of weapons and one patrol vehicle.

“Our mission is to protect and serve, but we are not even safe,” said Joseph Gaspard Hyppolite, the newest police chief, who reported for duty last week. “I can be killed at any moment here.”

Experts say Gonaives’ devastating flooding is linked directly to Haiti’s poverty, which forces many of the island’s nearly 8 million residents to cut trees for fuel in a struggle for survival.

There is little ground cover to absorb Haiti’s often-heavy rains, sending water rushing down denuded mountainsides, bursting riverbanks and flooding entire valleys before inundating packed urban areas.

Haiti’s weak and corrupt central government has failed to follow through on programs or enforce laws to protect the nation’s few remaining forests.

Floods in May killed at least 1,300 people in southeastern Haiti. Experts say it is only a matter of time before it happens again.

“All of the donors have poured money into reforestation, but until you have a functioning government it doesn’t do much good,” said Paul Paryski, a retired UN environmental expert who spent nearly 20 years in Haiti.

Gonaives is now blanketed in a cloud of choking dust. Roadsides are lined with mounds of dirt, twisted rubble and other debris, which the government is hauling away.

Like the walking dead

Many residents appear to be living on automatic pilot in a nation where extreme hardship and violent death is the rule rather than exception.

“We lost 48 of our 393 students,” said Aurelien Louis, assistant director of a primary school. “It brings a lot of pain and sadness. Some of the kids who survived lost their parents. Some lost their brothers or sisters. Some lost their friends.”

Ifodi Laguerre was huddled in his wood-frame home with his wife and six children when the wall of water ripped his 5-year-old daughter out of his arms and swept the rest of his family away.

In all, Laguerre lost 17 relatives.

Today, the 27-year-old farmer has no home, no work and no hope.

“I’m just existing. I don’t have anything,” said Laguerre, who survived by clinging to a tree branch for 12 hours. “I am here only because it was God’s will.”

In addition to continuing emergency assistance, relief workers are broadening their programs beyond handouts to include such efforts as providing food and cash to several thousand residents in exchange for their helping the cleanup operations and road repair.

But the effort is threatened by the continuing violence.

“It’s very difficult to get community participation for these projects,” Gauvreau said.