Desperate Haitians bury dead in mass graves as they wait for food and water to reach them

By Mike Melia, AP
Friday, January 15, 2010

Aid slowly reaching Haitians as desperation grows

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Pushed to the far edge of desperation, earthquake-ravaged Haitians dumped decaying bodies into mass graves and begged for water and food Friday amid fear that time is running out to avoid chaos and to rescue anyone still alive in the wreckage.

The U.S. military brought some relief, taking control of the airport, helping coordinate flights bringing in aid and evacuating foreigners and the injured. Medical teams, meanwhile, set up makeshift hospitals, workers started to clear the streets of corpses and water was being distributed in pockets of the city.

But the task was enormous.

Aid workers and authorities warned that unless they can quickly get aid to the people, Port-au-Prince will degenerate into lawlessness.

There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street. Survivors also fought each other for food pulled from the debris.

“I’m getting the sense that if the situation doesn’t get sorted (out) real soon, it will devolve into chaos,” said Steve Matthews, a veteran relief worker with the Christian aid organization World Vision.

Time also was running out to rescue anyone who may still be trapped alive in the many buildings in Port-au-Prince that collapsed in Tuesday’s magnitude-7.0 quake.

“Beyond three or four days without water, they’ll be pretty ill,” said Dr. Michael VanRooyen of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston. “Around three days would be where you would see people start to succumb.”

An Australian TV crew pulled a healthy 16-month-old girl from the wreckage of her house Friday — about 68 hours after the earthquake struck. In a collapsed house, neighbors and reporters heard a cry and found an air pocket: part of the top floor had been held up by a cabinet.

“I could see a dead body that was there, sort of on top of the cabinet; I could hear the baby on the left side of the body screaming,” said David Celestino of the Dominican Republic, who had been working with the TV crew.

Although her parents were dead, Winnie Tilin survived with only scratches and soon was in the arms of her uncle, whose pregnant wife also was killed.

“I have to consider her like my baby because mine is passed,” Frantz Tilin told The Associated Press.

As temperatures rose into the high 80s (upper 20s Celsius), the sickly smell of the dead lingered over Port-au-Prince, where countless bodies remained unclaimed in the streets. Hundreds of bloated corpses were stacked outside the city morgue, and limbs of the dead protruded from crushed schools and homes.

At a cemetery outside the city, trucks dumped bodies by the dozens into a mass grave. Elsewhere, people pulled a box filled with bodies along a road, then used a mechanical front-loader to lift the box and tip it into a large metal trash bin. South of the capital, workers burned more than 2,000 bodies in a trash dump.

The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed. A third of Haiti’s 9 million people may be in need of aid. As many as half of the buildings in the capital and other hard-hit areas were damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Program was providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people “several times a day.”

“Obviously, that is only a drop in the bucket in the face of the massive need, but the agency will be scaling up to feed approximately 1 million people within 15 days and 2 million people within a month,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would go to Haiti on Saturday to to inspect the damage and meet with President Rene Preval and other officials. Clinton, who will travel with USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, said she wants to convey “our long-term, unwavering support, solidarity and sympathies.”

“There are going to be many difficult days ahead,” said President Barack Obama, speaking for the fourth time on the disaster in three days.

The effort to get aid to the victims has been stymied by blocked roads, congestion at the airport, limited equipment and other obstacles. U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the capital said popular anger was rising, warning aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.

“People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation — if they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat,” U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva.

Tom Osbeck, an Indiana missionary whose Protestant-run Jesus in Haiti Ministry operates a school north of Port-au-Prince, said nerves were becoming increasingly frayed.

“Even distributing food or water is very dangerous. People are desperate and will fight to death for a cup of water,” Osbeck said.

Tempers flared at one of the capital’s functioning gas stations as drivers tried to jockey their dusty cars into line. An armed guard brandishing a shotgun intervened to keep motorists from coming to blows.

Grocery stores were looted clean soon after the quake, according to Emilia Casella of the U.N. World Food Program. She said the WFP would start handing out 6,000 tons of food aid recovered from a damaged warehouse in the city’s Cite Soleil slum and was preparing shipments of enough ready-to-eat meals to feed 2 million Haitians for a month.

Asked about the concern of frustration spilling into violence, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said his peacekeepers, working with Haitian police, “are now taking charge of law and order in the city.”

“I suspect there will be some frustrations felt by the general population,” he added. “We are very much concerned about that kind of possibility and are taking all possible precautionary measures. Until now, I think we have so far not seen major problems.”

The U.S. military has several hundred personnel on the ground, including more than 100 troops from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. Hundreds of sailors, meanwhile, pulled into Port-au-Prince harbor on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

Within hours, an 82nd Airborne rapid response unit was handing out food, water and medical supplies from two cargo pallets outside the airport, a helicopter lifted off with water to distribute, and a reconnaissance chopper went searching for drop zones around the capital to move out more aid. Soldiers said they expected more supplies later in the day.

At the airport, foreigners waved their passports to guards as they scrambled to escape the chaos by boarding the departing flights.

“We’ve had people crying, people passing out,” said Muriel Sinai, 38, a nurse from Orlando, Fla.

Some 250 Americans were flown to New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base on three military planes. U.S. forces in control of the airport initially blocked French and Canadians from boarding planes, even though a French military aircraft stood by. They lifted their cordon after protests from French and Canadian officials.

The State Department said the U.S. death toll was six and predicted it will rise.

The Cuban government said Friday it had allowed U.S. airplanes to fly through its airspace as it evacuated wounded from Haiti, a move which shaves 90 minutes off flights to Miami.

With hospitals devastated, more than 3,000 injured have been treated in the Dominican Republic, including Haitian Senate President Kelly Bastien. A border hospital in Jimani is overflowing, while a trauma center in Santo Domingo requested blood donations to keep up with demand.

In Port-au-Prince, some 100 people have died while waiting for treatment at the offices of Doctors Without Borders, mission director Stefano Zannini said by phone. Open fractures are the most common injury, he said.

“I can see thousands of them walking in the streets, lost, asking for help, asking for everything,” he said.

There was good news too: surgeons performed a complicated cesarean birth, Zannini said. “I am very proud to share with you that we were able to save both the lives of the baby and the mother.”

An El Al Boeing 777 landed Friday with 250 Israeli medical officers and nurses ready to set up a military field hospital. A reconnaissance team set out to find a site for the 90-bed facility, which will have a full surgical unit and the capacity to treat 100 patients at a time.

In front of the collapsed National Palace, thousands of homeless in makeshift camps pleaded for help. Marimartha Syrel, a nurse, said nobody had provided even water since Tuesday. “We can’t cook food. We can’t do anything.” The sidewalks were littered with excrement left on paper plates.

“They are very hungry,” said Rivia Alce, a 21-year-old street vendor selling gum, cigarettes and rum. If no help comes, she said, “we will die.”

Nearby, a woman with a bowl of water on the sidewalk bathed a naked girl without soap. Then she washed an elderly woman, naked but for a sagging pair of white panties.

A block away, a dozen bodies lay bloated and uncovered on the sidewalk — one of them with arms reaching out, as if begging for release.

Rubble spilling over from collapsed buildings blocked downtown traffic to all but pedestrians. People covered their faces with scarves to shield themselves from dust and the stench of decay. Small bands of young men and boys carrying machetes roamed the streets.

“They are scavenging everything. What can you do?” said 53-year-old Michel Legros, who was waiting for heavy equipment to excavate his house, where he added that seven relatives were buried. “I know some of them died.”

Associated Press writers contributing to this story included Jonathan M. Katz, Paul Haven, Tamara Lush and Jennifer Kay in Port-au-Prince; Ramon Almanzar in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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