As anger and fears of violence grew amid desperate shortages of food, water and medical supplies, bands of machete-wielding earthquake survivor yesterday roamed through the ruins of Port-au-Prince.
Sporadic violence, looting and gang-related gunfire broke out under sweltering Caribbean skies even as thousands of US forces awaited deployment from a newly-arrived aircraft carrier sitting in the waters off the city.
In chaotic scenes, United Nations food trucks were rushed by hungry people clamouring for handouts of nutritional biscuits and water purification tablets. Children and the elderly were pushed aside in the crush.
UN peacekeepers patrolling the capital said frustrations were rising and warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting. Yet despite the tensions, survivors lined up patiently at other UN food and water distribution centres. A teenage boy working for the charity foundation of Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop superstar, was shot dead as he drove a truck-turned-hearse away from a cemetery.
“Somebody wanted to carjack him,” said Mr Jean, who arrived in the city on Thursday and put his staff to work clearing bodies. “Two shots.”
In one particularly shocking incident, a looter was spotted hauling a corpse from a coffin at a city cemetery so that he could drive away with the wooden box. There were reports of armed gangs setting up roadblocks to demand money and essential supplies from passing lorries and the UN said that the poor security situation meant it could not reach outlying areas with aid operations.
In the Iron Market, one of the poorest neighbourhoods, teenage looters scuttled over the concrete debris and ignored piles of dead bodies on the street in their desperate bid to dig out supplies.
“People are hungry, thirsty. They are left on their own,” said Leon Meleste, an Adventist sporting a white “New York” baseball cap.
“It is increasingly dangerous. The police doesn’t exist, people are doing what they want.”
Former US president Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti, urged Americans not to be deterred from supporting the relief effort as his wife Hillary, the secretary of state, flew in to the country to discuss the aid operation.
“You may see some things in the next seven or 10 days that don’t just tug at your heart strings but upset you,” Mr Clinton said. “You may see a lot of very angry people, you may see some people looting, you may see some people doing and saying some things you don’t like.”
US troops are due to be deployed this weekend to help the distribution of aid and quell the threat of violence. But for now the Haitian capital, a tense and insecure place at the best of times, has no effective police force.
And the security situation worsened when the collapse of Port-au-Prince’s main prison left 4,000 convicts free to escape. A local policeman, standing near the jail, rifle at the ready said: “All the bandits of the city are now on the streets. They are robbing people. It is a big problem.”
Evelyne Buino, a young beautician, said: “Men suddenly appeared with machetes to steal money. This is just the beginning.” Harold Marzouka, a Haitian-American businessman, said: “If aid doesn’t start pouring in at a significant level, there will be serious consequences on the streets. People are in the shocked and frightened stage. The next phase is survival.”
The shortage of water remains the gravest problem. People have been walking the streets carrying empty plastic bottles gathering water from broken pipes and gutters. The city’s supplies dried up following the rupture of the municipal pipeline.
Even before Tuesday’s earthquake, most Haitians depended on water from a huge underground natural reservoir delivered by truckers. But many of the drivers are now too scared to deliver supplies after a number of them were attacked as they drove into the city.
One significant piece of good news that a UN warehouse, though damaged in the quake, had not been looted, as initially reported–allowing aid workers to begin distributing the 6,000 tons of food supplies inside.
Oxfam had water supplies in Haiti left over from a 2008 storm and has managed to get some 2,000 and 5,000-litre tanks into the city. US military officials say helicopters are ferrying in water and other supplies from the USS Carl Vinson, while the US multinational Procter & Gamble Co. is sending 3 million water-purifying packets along with cash donations for earthquake relief.
The structure of government and law and order all but disappeared in the days following the quake. But on the ground some Haitians were trying to fill the power vacuum and implement their own self-help operation, encouraged by the city’s Radio Metropole, which urged residents: “Organise neighbourhood committees to avoid chaos and prevent people looting shops and houses.”
Milero Cedamou, the 33-year-old owner of a small water delivery company, twice drove his small tanker truck 10 miles outside Port-au-Prince, paying $25 for each fill-up before returning to a tent city where thousands of homeless people were living.
Mr Cedamou said: “This is a crisis of unspeakable magnitude, it’s normal for every Haitian to help. This is not charity.”
Jean Ponce, a 36-year-old mason, was among 200 people holding plastic buckets who clustered around the truck–adorned with the slogan “Wait for God” on its side–when it returned. He lost one of his children in the quake and said the bucketful he collected would be the first drinkable water his four surviving children tasted since the disaster struck. “This is nearly like a miracle,” Mr Ponce said.
The uncertain security situation has also taken a toll on efforts to provide desperately-needed medical care. At dusk on Friday, security advisors to a team of Belgian doctors and nurses told them to leave a field hospital where hundreds of critically-wounded Haitians were being treated after shots were heard nearby.
Clearly frustrated, the medics reluctantly packed their equipment as patients who had waited more than two days implored them not to abandon the tents. Several had suffered life-threatening head injuries and blood loss from roadside amputations conducted without anaesthetic to free them from collapsed buildings.
In a remarkable scene, Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent and a practising surgeon, worked at the makeshift clinic through the night, turning his crew and the network’s private security team into an emergency medical unit.
“What is striking to me as a physician is that patients who just had surgery, patients who are critically ill are essentially being left here, nobody to care for them,” Dr Gupta said. “I’ve never been in a situation like this. This is quite ridiculous.”
Gen Russel Honore, the retired US army commander who became a hero in New Orleans after leading the belated military relief operation following Hurricane Katrina, said the evacuation was unforgivable and urged greater co-operation between US forces and the UN.
He made comparisons with the chaos of Katrina when initial reports of rampant looting and snipers hampered the initial relief mission. But even there, he said, no medical staff walked away. “Search and rescue must trump security,” he said.