More than two weeks after the 12 January earthquake in Haiti, official estimates suggest over 100,000 people were killed, 200,000 injured, and 1 million left homeless. (The Haiti Vox blog has posted a partial translation of a government bulletin containing these and other statistics.) Despite an outpouring of aid from many countries around the world, and the presence in Haiti of thousands of relief workers, United Nations peacekeepers, and US troops, media reports suggest that a substantial percentage of affected Haitians in and around Port-au-Prince have still received little or no relief assistance.
The sheer scale of the disaster is one reason, compounded by severely damaged infrastructure and the earthquake's impact on Haitian government agencies, many of which have lost key staff. But some Haitians online, and others on the ground, are suggesting that exaggerated concerns about security and violence may be hindering relief efforts.
One outspoken commentator is the musician Richard Morse, who is also the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson, where many foreign media personnel have been based. Within hours of the earthquake, Morse began posting news and commentary on Twitter (as @RAMhaiti), and the stream of information has continued. On 18 January, he angrily suggested that UN personnel were avoiding certain areas of Port-au-Prince:
He refers to a system pre-dating the earthquake by several years, in which Port-au-Prince is divided into “red” and “green” zones depending on levels of perceived risk to UN staff and others. Many parts of downtown Port-au-Prince are designated “red” zones, while the more affluent Petionville area to the southeast, for example, is a “green” zone. UN staff are required to have a military escort to enter a “red” zone for any reason, including aid distribution (according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Even before the earthquake, some residents of the city believed the zoning system disadvantaged certain neighbourhoods, as a September 2009 CIDA report on the Bel Air area made clear.
In the subsequent days, Morse has continued to comment on the “red/green” zoning system, alleging it has more to do with politics than security, and is affecting relief efforts:
On 22 January, the US-based Democracy Now media organisation posted a video report on their blog, making similar claims. The report quoted Sasha Kramer of the NGO Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods:
What I’ve been witnessing here is that the aid actually arrived fairly quickly…. As I understand, there’s thousands of tons of food that are available. But the problem that they’re having is distribution of the aid.
And one of the issues with that is that large aid organizations working in Haiti, because it’s an area that has a State Department warning, there’s a lot of regions in Port-au-Prince that are considered red zones that they’re not able to go into without very high security restrictions. So when the large aid groups circulate around Port-au-Prince, they’re often in sealed vehicles with their windows up….
Other accounts suggested that security concerns are also in play in areas outside Port-au-Prince. The website Haiti Analysis posted a report (dated 26 January) by journalist Kim Ives of the weekly newspaper Haiti Liberté, describing a food drop-off in Léogane, near the epicentre of the earthquake:
Léogane … probably had the most extensive damage of any Haitian city. But earlier that day, the United Nations had announced that it could not bring relief to Léogane until it had established security.
“I don't know what security they need to establish,” responded Roland St. Fort, 32, another one of the town's neighborhood leaders. “There have been no riots here. The people have been very disciplined. They set up their own security around their outdoor camps.”
Freelance journalist Ansel Herz, based in Port-au-Prince since September 2009, suggested on his blog Mediahacker (on 19 January) that biased reporting by international media might be fuelling relief workers’ fears:
I have not seen a single incidence of violence. The tent camps through the city, whether in Chanmas or near Delmas, are destitute but totally peaceful…. Tell CNN, the BBC, and other media to stop being alarmist fear-mongers.
He repeated on Twitter (@mediahacker): “Stop pushing this violent criminals idea. Talk to the people, not the police.” Charity worker Troy Livesay (@troylivesay) has also commented several times that he has seen little violence on the streets.
And on 26 January, two observers gave eyewitness reports via Twitter of a food distribution operation near the ruined National Palace in Port-au-Prince, overseen by UN peacekeepers. “Brazilian soldiers throwing tear gas!” announced @karljeanjeune. Radio journalist Carel Pedre (@carelpedre) commented:
But Olivier Dupoux (@olidups) seemed skeptical. “I don't think you believe they're doing this because they are bored/testing new gas bombs,” he said.
A few hours later, Pedre posted video footage on YouTube, where it appeared the peacekeepers were in fact using pepper spray, despite mostly orderly behaviour from people in the distribution queue. He also posted five items of advice to relief organisers:
As the tear gas story above demonstrates, it’s difficult to verify information. You try to get around as much as you can, but in the end you’ll see only a tiny fraction of the whole, and perhaps understand or read accurately only a fraction of that. But the overriding story is about the distribution of aid: how badly it’s going, how supplies are failing to get to those who need it, and also how difficult the whole exercise is.