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Haiti: “We’re all eight days old”

Eight days after the disastrous 12 January earthquake that turned the world's eyes towards Haiti, with the full death-toll still unclear, relief efforts continued in Port-au-Prince and other areas. A strong early-morning aftershock on 20 January alarmed many, but did relatively little new damage. Many Haitians quickly returned their attention to matters of survival, and relief workers to getting food, water, and medical treatment to communities in need.

For some, there seemed to be a sense that the earthquake was a decisive turning-point in Haiti's history, almost a reboot. As Twitter user @yatalley (Yael Talleyrand) put it:

i'm 8 days old… haiti's 8 days old… we're all 8 days old: we got a whole future to build.

Other Haitians posting updates online expressed frustration with the way relief efforts were being run and information shared. On Twitter, @carelpedre (radio journalist Carel Pedre) asked a series of questions, “Five Ws (and one H)”:

1st W : Who is in charge in Haiti to distribute Food/water and medical supplies to us?

2nd W: What will the government do with the humanitarian aid?

3rd W: When are you going to Start distributing the aid properly?

4th W: Where can we go to get food and water?

5th W: Why after 8 days, the president did not formally and officially address to the nation?

and The H: How do you expect us to be patient when we are hungry and thirsty and we have lost everything?

He added:

I hope some journalists will ask them to the Prez or the PM next time they'll meet them.

@Jcastera (Jean-Marc Castera) expressed similar sentiments: Would be great if someone took charge and outlined the plan forward…” Anxiety took its toll even on those whose safety and security were not immediately at risk. i need this to end. can't handle it no more, im going crazy,” wrote @yatalley.

Parallel to more official relief efforts, many small organisations laboured to assist the injured and the hungry. At the Livesay [Haiti] Weblog, charity worker Tara Livesay described an extraordinary (and ultimately successful) attempt to get several badly injured patients at an ad hoc medical clinic airlifted to a US Navy hospital ship:

All of a sudden out of nowhere a helicopter circled over a time or two … then swooped in. It landed right out in front of us. Two studly helicopter military guys walked over and said they could take four people. We chose the four worst. They said “We'll be back in ten minutes for more.” We could not believe what was happening. They came back … and back. Three trips to the ship for the people of Simon Pele…. It felt like justice to me.

Another charity worker, Father Marc Boisvert of Pwoje Espwa, visited the main prison in Port-au-Prince and discovered a crisis:

Two-thirds of the prison is destroyed. There are holes in the walls to the exterior and holes in the roof that the prisoners used to escape…. Immediate needs: food, clothing, first aid medical attention, personal hygiene items. The remaining prisoners are all inhumanely shut up in four cells. It is deplorable!

“There are 60 to 75 prisoners in each cell which is absolutely inhumane,” he added later. His organisation arranged to have food brought to the prison, where inmates helped with distribution.

In Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince, charity worker Gwen Mangine — whose organisation has been working long hours to distribute supplies arriving at the town's airstrip — took a moment to reflect on the pace of their efforts:

We know it's not sustainable. We know that. We also know that we're in a critical time in the life of our community, and for whatever reason, God has given us favor everywhere we turn…. we can really be “all hands on deck” running hard for the first two weeks as we get systems and processes in place. After that time, I expect we'll be doing more shift work and resuming regular days off. We know this is an unending project we've begun.

In many areas, urgent need continued to outstrip available help. @troylivesay (charity worker Troy Livesay, based in Port-au-Prince) noted: Seems like every area we enter has a tent/tarp/sheet city set up and badly wounded that have not received any care.” He reported that he was driving through the mountains to the border with the Dominican Republic to collect supplies. As his wife Tara later explained at the Livesay [Haiti] Weblog:

… for whatever reason the big outfits are not helping the little NGO's with supplies and such – so we've been finding stuff ourselves and we've been finding favor. It is clear that politics and things on higher levels are causing a delay in adequate response. While that is totally discouraging – we've been networking together with other tiny NGO's to find a way around being snubbed by the big relief organizations. It is degaje net around here. (Degaje is the Kreyol saying that basically means ‘make it work’ – net is the kreyol word for ‘all the way or alot’).

On his return to Port-au-Prince, Troy Livesay commented: It was eery coming back into such a quiet city at night,” and “The UN is cntrllng and rstrctng the mvmnts of the US military…not letting them go out at night.I'm pretty sure the Marines aren't scared.”

@RAMhaiti (musician and hotelier Richard Morse) made some sharp comments about aid politics:

Aid and the dispersal of Aid IS politics.Experience says;politics never stops.Which families r getting the aid?

I've been led to believe that the Search & Rescue Operations have a US citizen priority

Don't get me wrong, I'm telling you things I've heard. Search & Rescue is still here, thats a good sign.I went out twice w/them

I'm not bitter.I'm trying 2 get a complete understanding of what's going on so i ask questions.Asking questions improves results

Meanwhile, many international media reports suggest that violence on the streets is hindering relief efforts. HaitiAnalysis.com posted an article by British broadcaster Andy Kershaw disputing this notion:

This assumption that there is a security threat has gone completely unchallenged by an army of foreign press, equally unfamiliar with Haiti and the character of the Haitians. Indeed, TV reporters particularly, having exhausted the televisual possibilities of rubble, have been talking up “security”, “unrest” and “violence” when all available evidence would indicate anything but.

@troylivesay expressed similar thoughts from on the ground: We have seen little to no violence.It is hppng in isolated areas/incidents.Even now there is less violence/crime here than major US cities.”

And Canadian journalist Nico Jolliet — a member of a team filing reports and posting Creative Commons-licensed video footage to a website called Inside Disaster — paid a visit to a camp called Ste. Therese, in the hills above Port-au-Prince, where people whose houses were destroyed or damaged have taken refuge. “There must be about 4000 people in there,” he wrote:

The heat is unbearable under the improvised tarps and sheets tents, especially with people cooking under them.

But what surprises me is how well kept it is, considering there is no latrines, garbage disposals, or anything else…. People are friendly and good-natured, children play, women wash clothes in plastic tubs or cook what is left of their food on the coal stoves. They take care of the wounded the best they can…. Yet no help has come their way. I only saw one Haitian doctor working with the little supplies he salvaged from his house. After going through such an ordeal they seem to keep it together and hold on.

His video report, posted at YouTube, includes an interview with a woman who, while admitting that her food supplies were running low, seemed almost cheerfully determined that her family would get by somehow.

Global Voices’ Special Coverage Page on the earthquake in Haiti is here.

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