Posted on January 27, 2010

Fear of Riots As Tonnes of Food Lie Awaiting Distribution

Lara Marlowe, Irish Times (Dublin), January 25, 2010

There are heartbreaking scenes amid the picnic tables and golf tees of a former haven for elites

US ARMY specialist Juan Valencia stood on the hillside above the Haitian capital, watching the teeming camp below with binoculars. “I’m just making sure they don’t have any weapons. They’re allowed to have weapons, but not within range of our guys,” said the spotter for the 82nd Airborne Division.

If one could for a moment forget the earthquake of January 12th, the 200,000 dead people and millions of Haitians in distress, the Pétionville golf club would be a beautiful place, with immaculate landscaping and vistas over the Caribbean. In the wake of the catastrophe, an estimated 60,000 Haitians rushed to its slopes, where they languish in tents fashioned from tree branches, bedsheets and rope.

Some 300 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division occupy the heights above the displaced Haitians, bivouacked in the clubhouse and tennis courts. The American actor Sean Penn, who with a former Bosnian refugee-turned-millionairess founded an instant NGO, is camping on one of the tennis courts. There are army lorries, Humvees painted desert tan from Iraq, and tonnes of food and water, waiting for distribution.

But crowd control remains an almost insurmountable problem. Word has gone out that the impoverished masses at the Pétionville Club will receive food and water, and the camp grows daily, with some aid workers saying it now numbers 100,000. Oxfam has done a heroic job of installing giant water bladders with taps, but this is insufficient.

The US Catholic Relief Service (CRS) was able to distribute 1,300 food kits late last week, but full-scale distribution has repeatedly been delayed for fear of food riots, while CRS divides the camp into A, B, C and D blocks and distributes a voucher to the mother of each family, in the hope of organising an orderly distribution. If all goes well, CRS will begin its distribution today. “If it takes an extra day to do it right, it’s worth it,” says Donal Reilly, the Dubliner in charge of food distribution for CRS.

The camp, one of the largest of some 500 in Port-au-Prince, is becoming infamous as a place where the displaced can find water and a modicum of security, provided by the US military, but no food. It’s not entirely true; the 82nd Airborne gave away 10,000 meals each day until Saturday, making this camp the US military’s largest distribution point in Port-au-Prince. But the Americans decided the food attracted too many people to a volatile site, and temporarily stopped it.

“The crowd has calmed down,” Lt Brad Kerfoot said as he surveyed the tent city below us. Fights broke out the previous day when CRS tried to distribute vouchers–not even food, just vouchers. “We told them we wouldn’t give any food away today, because of the way they behaved yesterday,” says Kerfoot.

The military and CRS officials say there are no signs of starvation in the camp. Some of its inhabitants have enough money to buy food in the local market. And the soldiers say they see ration boxes hoarded in what they call “the village”.

“Yesterday, they threw water bottles back at us and said, ‘We don’t want your water’,” Lt Kerfoot says. “When we gave out high energy biscuits, they threw them on the ground and stomped on them when they saw they were cookies. My soldiers and I think they’re ungrateful.”

The displaced Haitians want food, not water, a Haitian woman explained to me. And in their culture, biscuits are not real food, but something given to children.

During the day, Lt Kerfoot positions two riflemen armed with M4s above the camp. After nightfall, there’s an entire squadron. “There’s people in the camp with guns,” explains Donal Reilly of CRS. “There’ve been knife fights. The Americans told me last night the Haitians were selling drugs. It’s turning into a typical Port-au-Prince slum, and there’s not one policeman down there.”

Nor is there a single toilet or shower, for 60,000 people. Piles of rubbish smoulder between the tents. Women fry fritters and fish on charcoal stoves beside their shelters. Reilly worries about sanitation and the fire hazard. There are no fire breaks, and the bedsheet tents are highly flammable.

Amid the picnic tables and golf tees in this refuge of Haiti’s pre-quake elite, there are heart-breaking scenes. In dozens of tents, people told me they were hungry, thirsty and had nowhere to go. Several said they expected to die in the Pétionville Club.

But even in the worst deprivation, Haitians have maintained a sense of humour. One bedsheet tent bore a cardboard sign declaring it to be “Tikay O Beach”.

Louissant Banningchton (26), a painter who wears his dreadlocks in a knitted snood, constructed a “Presidential Palace” of cardboard boxes stamped “Humanitarian daily rations. Food gift from the people of the United States of America”. “Thank you Jesus,” “Haiti 4 America” and “God Bless America” are slogans Banningchton painted on the “palace” before declaring himself president.

A few miles away, at Turgeau, the Irish aid group Goal was carrying out its second distribution of basic food supplies. By last night Goal was to have given a 15-day food supply to 9,000 peoples. Goal’s emergency co-ordinator, Brian Casey, had carefully assessed the neighbourhood’s needs, and co-ordinated the distribution with local leaders. The hand-out nonetheless started tensely, with Haitians from other neighbourhoods clamouring for food being held back by Sri Lankan UN troops.

For John O’Shea, the head of Goal who visited Port-au-Prince at the weekend, the Haitian relief effort is still too little, too slowly. “Up to 1.5 million people need all of their basic requirements seen to,” O’Shea said. “There isn’t an entity on the planet that can satisfy the needs of 1.5 million people. We don’t have it because the international community hasn’t established an international fire brigade.”

O’Shea believes Ireland is the nation best qualified to established such an organisation.

In the meantime, he wants President Barack Obama, who has sent $100 million in aid and 12,000 military personnel, to be given overall authority–not the UN. “The one phrase I heard most here was: ‘Who in God’s name is in charge?’ ” says O’Shea.