Survival of the fittest at food handouts in Haiti (Feature)
By Franz Smets Jan 22, 2010, 7:04 GMT
Port-au-Prince, Haiti - In the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the survivors of last week's disastrous earthquake are now facing dwindling food supplies. Aid distribution efforts are being hampered by angry crowds and insufficient security forces to keep them at bay.
'Everything was going fine to start with,' Simone Pott of the German food aid agency Welthungerhilfe said, describing a food handout by the agency Thursday. But things soon turned ugly, and at the end of the day much of the food did not reach those it was intended for.
The distribution, which aimed to provide food to 6,000 residents of one of the many makeshift camps, had been carefully prepared as the agency was aware of the risk posed by desperate crowds.
'We knew it would be difficult to distribute the food,' said Michael Kuehn, head of Welthungerhilfe in Haiti. The previous day, a committee tied plastic cable ties to the wrists of those for whom the aid was destined, to make them easily recognisable when the food was handed out.
The camp-dwellers waited patiently in a long queue as the trucks drove up laden with rice, beans, salt and oil from the Dominican Republic, before the aid workers started distributing the food under the watchful eyes of six UN peacekeepers and four Haitian policemen.
Suddenly there was a surge from the back of the crowd, as around 200 strong young men pressed to the front. The security forces were unable to prevent what happened next.
The men forcibly took large quantities of rice, beans and salt. They fell upon the trucks, climbed on the vehicles' roofs and helped themselves directly from the loading platforms.
Women, children and older people in the queue looked on, crestfallen. Witnesses watched uncomprehendingly, saying they were ashamed of their countrymen's behaviour.
'We were given the choice of whether to start with the distribution under conditions that were not ideal, or to leave it be,' Kuehn said of the incident. 'Given the urgent need of the population we decided to go ahead with it.
'A small number of criminals can sabotage a well prepared distribution,' the team's Ruediger Ehrler said, adding that all possible precautions had been taken in preparing the handout.
The agency scouted many possible locations before selecting the damaged school as providing the best environment available from a security point of view.
The previous day, the team distributed water at the same location as a test run and met with no trouble from the crowds. But water, unlike rice, is not in critically short supply, and is little use as a tradeable commodity.
It was the first large-scale food distribution by Welthungerhilfe since last Tuesday's magnitude-7 earthquake laid waste to the Haitian capital, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and dispossessed.
The aid agencies active in Haiti are aware of the danger of outbreaks of violence at distribution points, and all handouts are overseen by UN peacekeepers and local police.
But all the precautions were not enough to prevent the hungry crowd from getting out of hand Thursday. 'It was the bare survival of the fittest' said one witness. 'At the end the weak simply left empty-handed.'