Sunday, September 26, 2004

Haiti plans for enormous tent city

Death toll from Jeanne at least 1,500

GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) -- Amid the destruction from Tropical Storm Jeanne, Haitians prayed for the 1,500 dead victims and gave thanks their lives were spared at services Sunday as the United Nations rushed more peacekeepers to stem looting and thieving gangsters in the ravaged city of Gonaives.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said the government was drawing up plans to evacuate some of the tens of thousands of homeless to a tent camp. Some victims said they would abandon the city, Haiti's third largest with 250,000 residents. Some 300,000 people are homeless from the storm, about 200,000 of them in Gonaives, according to the government's civil defense agency.

Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, the Brazilian Army commander in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, criticized the slow pace of relief reaching residents, many of whom aid officials say have not eaten in five days and more.

"The situation remains critical," he said in an interview with Agencia Brasil. "Even those who were not directly affected are going hungry without enough water and are suffering from a shortage of medicine and medical assistance, because the government infrastructure was already weak and, after this tragedy, is virtually nonexistent."

Pereira said people, especially children, were contracting gangrene and that amputations were being performed under horrendous conditions.

"I don't even like to talk about it," Agencia Brasil quoted the general as saying. "Bathing injuries with water of terrible quality causes gangrene. When it gets out of hand, they go looking for help and the solution has to be extreme."

Officials said more than 900 people had been treated for injuries by Wednesday, and Argentinian Army medics report treating more than 100 patients daily, many for infected wounds from falling roofs or pieces of zinc roof hidden in mud that coats everything in the city.

Latortue said Saturday that the storm has killed at least 1,500. Officials earlier said 1,251 people were missing -- many suspected washed out to sea or buried in debris in areas still inaccessible more than a week after the storm.

Planeloads of aid from several nations and organizations have arrived in Port-au-Prince, the capital, but getting it to Gonaives is a nine-hour nightmare drive with the final leg of Route National 1 covered by a four-feet deep lake of mud littered with mired aid trucks.

A container truck that got there Sunday morning was looted by desperate residents who broke into as it was moving and threw packets of water into the street, where children dodged other aid trucks to grab the precious loot.

Argentine soldiers finally shoved people back from the truck as they screamed "We're hungry. We're all hurt by the floods."

On Saturday, a 13-year-old boy was run over and killed when crowds swarmed an aid truck and the driver took off.

Argentine troops fired smoke grenades Friday when hundreds of people tried to storm a food distribution set up in a school yard.

Some 140 Uruguayan soldiers were on their way to reinforce about 600 U.N. peacekeepers already in Gonaives, said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the U.N. mission. Haiti has only 3,000 of the 8,000 troops promised when Pereira took charge in June.

Street gangs are mobbing relief workers to steal food aid and "there's nothing we can do," said U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator Eric Mouillesarine.

The most notorious gang in Gonaives, the Cannibal Army, started a rebellion in February that quickly was joined by former soldiers who ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The United States sent troops and installed an interim government that now is supported by the U.N. force.

But rebel leaders have refused to disarm, with some demanding the reinstatement of the Haitian army, blamed for the 30 coups Haiti has suffered, coups fed by greed that has fueled endemic poverty in the country of 8 million.

Last weekend's storm was worsened by Haiti's nearly total deforestation, mass chopping of trees to make charcoal for cooking, which left valleys surrounding Gonaives unable to hold water dumped during some 30 hours of pounding by Jeanne.

Sunday dawned sunny and bright, a blessing after thunderstorms Saturday drenched people who are living on sidewalks and on rooftops of flooded homes. It also regurgitated the mud that finally had been caking as floodwaters receded, more than a week after the storm's passage.

At the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Charles Borromee, four people stood and prayed in the back, unwilling to venture into a disaster zone of overturned pews and trash ankle-deep in mud. Outside, a woman among hundreds sheltering at the church brushed her teeth and spat toothpaste into the debris.

A couple walked up, shoes newly waxed and shining, for Mass, which was held in a makeshift chapel.

In another hopeful sign, parts of the city smelled of disinfectant, instead of the stench from decomposing bodies, animal carcasses and overflowing sewage.

"We don't have anything but we're doing our best," Joselyne Ashalus said in front of a classroom where she sleeps on the floor with eight other people.

"After all this we have to be respectful and we have to thank God for saving us," said the 31-year-old mother who was grateful she saved her five children from the floods that destroyed their home and belongings.

Ashalus braided one daughter's hair and decorated it with pink and white hair grips, the gift of another storm survivor.

Her other children stood around -- a baby with yellow iodine-soaked bandages on both legs, a girl with one on her ankle, a toddler covered in a rash that developed after the floods.

Outside the city, near the lake flooding the highway, about 70 farmers waved signs saying "We need help too."

"We have not got any aid. We see the trucks passing all the time, and they never stop. Meanwhile there are kids dying of hunger here," said Bethony Maxime, a 23-year-old farmer who lost his house, cattle, goats and crops to the storm.

"The problem is the people in the rural areas are not getting anything. The gangs ... are taking it all," said another farmer, Pierre Richard, 36.

The director of the World Food Program's Haiti operation, Guy Gavreau, said aid groups had been able to get food to only about 25,000 people last week -- one-tenth of Gonaives' population.

The floods from Jeanne destroyed all of the rice and fruit harvest in the Artibonite, Haiti's breadbasket, "so now the country can't even feed itself without outside help," said Gavreau, the World Food Program official.

While some people welcomed news of a government evacuation, others planned to abandon the city entirely.

"If one person gets sick, we'll all be sick," said Ysemarie Saint-Louis, who weathered Saturday's thunderstorm crowded under a small tin shelter with more than 30 relatives. She said she and the others hoped to go elsewhere in Haiti, but she wasn't sure where.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.