Tense scenes in Haiti as aid workers lose key (Feature)
By Franz Smets Jan 25, 2010, 7:12 GMT
Leogane, Haiti - Under the scorching sun, hundreds of women waited for hours among the rubble of what used to be the town centre of Leogane, 30 kilometres west of the capital Port-au-Prince, waiting for food aid to arrive.
One end of the town's church, Sainte Rose de Lima, still stood precariously over the scene, the few remaining arches threatening to collapse at the slightest aftershock.
Braving the 30-degree heat on Saturday, the women sang, then suddenly started wailing, pushing and shoving as they caught sight of the red truck approaching up Avenue Grande, the main street in the city of 120,000.
Leogane was the epicentre of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake which nearly levelled Port-au-Prince on January 12. Officials estimate that 90 per cent of the city was destroyed, even greater than the 70 per cent in much of the capital city.
Little aid has reached Leogane so far. Doctors from Japan, Canada and the German province of Bavaria have arrived, and a clinic set up by Save the Children, which has been looking after Haiti's children for 30 years, has been receiving around 100 patients a day.
'We want to install a second base for our aid groups in Haiti here in Leogane,' said Volker Pellet, an official from the German embassy in Port-au-Prince.
Pellet was in charge of coordinating the efforts of various organizations arriving in the town over the weekend. These included German government agencies such as the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) and the Technical Cooperation Bureau (GTZ) as well as non-governmental ones like Caritas, Humedica, and the Johannite and Maltese aid groups.
The logistical difficulties of food distribution have been compounded by the problem of managing hungry and sometimes desperate crowds. In Port-au-Prince over the weekend, police fired warning shots and tear gas to hold back a crowd at a feeding center.
In Leogane on Saturday, about 100 peacekeepers from Canada and Sri Lanka secured the delivery area while the truck was manoeuvred into a small street next to the church that had been cleared of the metre-deep rubble.
The idea was to distribute the food quickly before tensions could rise. But no-one could find the key to the container, and the troops had to hold back the increasingly impatient crowd for a further 45 minutes before the agency workers were able to force the sturdy padlock.
By now several men had joined the women, while hundred more watch from the pitiful shelters they have cobbled together from scrap wood and tin sheeting.
Two thousand food packets of beans, rice, salt and oil were to be handed out.
A large man in yellow shirt sweated his way through the crowd for half an hour carrying a frail elderly woman, before handing her over to the soldiers. A parish member of the local church guided her towards the food distribution point.
After nearly two hours of handing out parcels, the agency workers decided to move on to another site. The crowd of hungry survivors hardly seemed any smaller, but the organizers chose not to send another, smaller delivery truck.
Under the watchful eyes of the exhausted Canadian soldiers, the truck slowly moved away with the two remaining palettes of food, destined for a refugee camp outside Leogane. Only a scattered murmur of discontent spread through the crowd as they dispersed peacefully.
In the refugee camp, medical teams from Cuba and Germany set up a small field hospital to start delivering medical care to people outside Port-au-Prince.
All too fast, the medical workers learned of the horrific conditions of medical practice in post-earthquake Haiti.
'We were not prepared for this - that amputations would be our first priority,' says Dr Thomas Geiner of Moosburg, Germany. The volunteer doctors from the Navis organization had brought no amputation saws.
'We are amputating with penknives - in the open air,' he said.
Even the better-prepared Cubans, first to arrive on the scene, faced unforeseen challenges.
'On the first day we carried out 17 amputations,' said Alfredo Taset, a physician from eastern Cuba. 'Now the number has dropped.'
Medical experts fear that many Haitians wounded in the earthquake will continue to die from their injuries and infections because of a lack of medical attention.
Some have even refused amputation, opting to turn down their only chance of survival rather than face the hopeless alternative of living in a country that has lost what little it had.