Outside Haiti capital, mass graves swell with thousands; doctors warn death toll could grow

By Paul Haven, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti’s mass graves swell; doctors fear more death

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Workers are carving out mass graves on a hillside north of Haiti’s capital, using earth-movers to bury 10,000 people in a single day even as relief workers warn that Haitians are still dying of injuries from the Jan. 12 quake for lack of medical care.

Clinics have 12-day waiting lists for patients, crushed arms and legs are festering and makeshift camps that have sprung up in parks, streets and vacant lots now house an estimated 500,000 people, many in need of food, water and a doctor.

“The next health risk could include outbreaks of diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases among hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in overcrowded camps with poor or nonexistent sanitation,” said Dr. Greg Elder, deputy operations manager for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti.

The death toll is estimated at 200,000, according to Haitian government figures relayed by the European Commission, with 80,000 buried in mass graves. The commission now estimates 2 million homeless.

Getting help in is still a challenge. Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command running Haiti’s airports said Thursday that 1,400 flights are on a waiting list for slots at the Port-au-Prince airport that can handle 120 to 140 flights a day.

But four ships now have managed to unload cargo at the capital’s badly damaged port, holding out the promise of a new avenue for getting aid to the city.

At least 51 sizable aftershocks have jolted the city, sending nervous Haitians fleeing repeatedly into the streets — and keeping many sleeping in the open. Quakes of magnitude 4.9 and 4.8 followed in quick succession just before noon Thursday, prompted rescue crews to briefly abandon work on precarious, ruined buildings, though there were no reports of casualties or damage.

They followed a magnitude-5.9 temblor a day earlier that collapsed some structures.

In the sparsely populated wasteland of Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, burial workers said the macabre task of handling the never-ending flow of bodies was traumatizing.

“I have seen so many children, so many children. I cannot sleep at night and, if I do, it is a constant nightmare,” said Foultone Fequiert, 38, his face covered with a T-shirt against the overwhelming stench.

The dead stick out at all angles from the mass graves — tall mounds of chalky dirt, the limbs of men, women and children frozen together in death. “I received 10,000 bodies yesterday alone,” said Fequiert.

Workers say they have no time to give the dead proper religious burials or follow pleas from the international community that bodies be buried in shallow graves from which loved ones might eventually retrieve them.

“We just dump them in, and fill it up,” said Luckner Clerzier, 39, who was helping guide trucks to another grave site farther up the road.

An Associated Press reporter counted 15 burial mounds at Clerzier’s site, each covering a wide trench cut into the ground some 25 feet (8 meters) deep, and rising 15 feet (4.5 meters) into the air. At the larger mass grave, where Fequiert toiled, three earth-moving machines cut long trenches into the earth, readying them for more cadavers.

Others struggle to stem the flow of the dead, even as time is running out even for miracles among the ruins.

More than eight days after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps said relatives found a 5-year-old in the wreckage of his home.

And rescue teams were chasing tantalizing hints.

A Los Angeles County rescue team sent three dogs separately into the rubble on a street corner in Petionville, overlooking Port-au-Prince. Each dog picked up the scent of life at one spot.

They screamed into the rubble in Creole: “If you hear me, bang three times.”

They heard no response, but vowed to continue.

“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and each day the needles are disappearing,” team member Steven Chin said.

A team from Puerto Rico and Costa Rica on Thursday chased a report that a girl had been sending text messages from within the rubble of a university. Sonar and dogs indicated someone might still be alive, so they threw themselves into the hunt, said Jose Echevarria, spokesman for the Puerto Rico team.

A Dutch mercy flight carrying 106 children slated for adoption arrived in the Netherlands from Port-au-Prince on Thursday. Nearly all of the children, aged 6 months to 7 years, were in the process of being adopted and already had been matched to new Dutch parents before the quake.

U.N. peacekeepers and U.S. troops have been helping keep order around aid deliveries and clinics in the stricken city, which seemed relatively calm on Thursday, even if looters continued to pillage pockets of downtown.

Police stood by as people made off with food and mobile phones from shattered shops, saying they were trying to save stores that are still undamaged.

“It is not easy but we try to protect what we can,” said officer Belimaire Laneau.

Young men with machetes fought over packages of baby diapers within sight of the body of a young woman who had been shot in the head. Witnesses said police had shot her, but officers in the vicinity denied it.

U.S. troops began flying gravely injured Haitians by helicopter to the U.S. hospital ship Comfort, part of a flotilla of ships arring to help fill gaps in the struggling global effort to deliver water, food and medical help.

Elder, of Doctors Without Borders, said that patients were dying of sepsis from untreated wounds and that some of the group’s posts had 10- to 12-day backups of patients.

The U.S. Navy said it is working to add 350 more crew members to the hospital ship, quadrupling the number of beds aboard to 1,000 and increasing the number of operating rooms from six to 11.

At least 500,000 quake victims are living in 447 makeshift settlements scattered in parks, streets and vacant lots around Haiti’s capital, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Only three of the camps have access to drinkable water.

At United Nations headquarters in New York, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said it was believed 3 million people are affected. The Pan American Health Organization said Thursday that more than 300,000 people are reportedly living in about 280 makeshift settlements, mainly in parks and open spaces.

Joseph St. Juste and his 5-year-old daughter, Jessica, were among 50,000 people spending their nights at a golf course under shelters of bed sheets or cardboard boxes. He is afraid to stay in his home because of the aftershocks.

St. Juste, a 36-year-old bus driver, wakes up every day and goes out to find food and water for his daughter.

“I wake up for her,” he said. “Life is hard anymore. I’ve got to get out of Haiti. There is no life in Haiti.”

Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Alfred de Montesquiou, Tamara Lush, Kevin Maurer, Michelle Faul, Bill Gorman and Jessica Desvarieux in Haiti; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Pauline Jelinek in Washington; Mike Corder in Eindhoven, Netherlands; Emma Vandore and Elaine Ganley in Paris; and Aoife White in Brussels.

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