The Miami Herald
Sat, Sep. 25, 2004
Desperate Haitians run out of patience


TIDOLAN, Haiti - When the floodwaters began rushing down the mountain toward her village, Huguette Raymonis knew she could not carry both her 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son up a tree to safety

She strapped her daughter on her back and hoped her boy could make it on his own. Then she watched as he struggled, failed and drowned -- like about 20 other children in this tiny farming community.

But six days after the floods and mudslides from Hurricane Jeanne that killed at least 1,180 and left as many missing, mostly in the port city of Gonaives, Raymonis does not have time to grieve. She is growing desperate to save the only child she has left.

''We need help here. . . . We don't have any food, the water is dirty and the children are getting sick,'' Raymonis said Friday with a mixture of bitterness and desperation echoed by many villagers interviewed by The Herald.

Tidolan is just one of several villages scattered around the mountains ringing Gonaives where emergency humanitarian aid has yet to arrive, blocked by washed-out roads and mud flats with rain-cut gullies up to six feet wide.

''There are people out in the countryside who we still can't assist, who we still can't get to,'' said Pierre Michel Benoit, a Civil Protection Department official in Gonaives. ``We can't get there, we don't have enough volunteers.''

U.N. peacekeeping forces deployed in Haiti have said they hope to begin delivering relief assistance to those villages today with a small fleet of helicopters. A Herald reporter-photographer team appeared to have been the first foreigners to reach the area since Jeanne struck Oct. 18.


''Right now the big focus [of aid deliveries] is in the big towns,'' said U.N. mission spokesman Toussaint Kongo-Doudou. ``We don't have enough personnel on the ground. It's difficult for relief agencies to get food and water to everyone.''

Tidolan, a cluster of some 100 houses, is about a 30-minute drive east of Gonaives, Haiti's third-largest city with about 200,000 residents. But relief officials have had massive problems delivering aid even there because of washed-out roads.

The first truck convoy of food and water reached Gonaives only Wednesday, and Benoit reported continuing scuffles there as desperately hungry and thirsty Haitians mob relief trucks and aid distribution points.

''We don't have enough security to help with the distribution,'' said Kongo-Doudou.

Bodies are still being found every day as the waters recede and teams of volunteers search the wreckage of houses that collapsed around their owners, Benoit added.

So the residents of small and isolated farm villages such as Tidolan, just outside the town of Les Poteaux, have had to struggle alone, as best they can, even as rains continue to pummel the area.

Children and adults have been drinking the floodwaters still standing in some areas, even though the bloated bodies of dead animals are stuck in the surrounding mud and at least two bodies are partially buried in the mud of the village.

A child's hand sticks out of the debris trapped by a tree, but no one here knows whose child it is. In all, villagers said, more than 20 of their children died in the floods.

''We lost many babies,'' said Datis Gregoire, 14, who lost his father and four brothers and sisters. He worried that the corn crops were lost, and that it would be difficult to replant anytime soon.

But the people here are already weak from hunger, and say they are unable to even begin thinking about any future beyond the next meal. Some said they have considered blocking the road -- which runs from Gonaives north to Gros Morne -- to draw attention to their plight.

''The government only comes to help us when they want our votes,'' complained Claude Renel. He was able to save five of his children by passing them up to his wife perched in a tree. But two others were swept away.

''No one cares about us here,'' he said, showing the bitter side of Jeanne's victims in Tidolan.

The desperate side was Rosier Elvaris, who got three of her children atop a neighbor's roof as the waters rose but could not help 7-year-old Leoni and 9-year-old Anne-Rose.


Like many other parents, she never found her children and presumes they are dead. As she sat on the floor of her home -- the only thing left of her house -- she sobbed.

''I need help,'' she said, sucking on a lemon from a nearby tree. ``I don't know what we'll do. I have nothing. I'm weak. On Sunday we had spaghetti after a stranger gave me money. Yesterday, I found some rice. But today we have nothing.''

Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report from Miami.