Haiti’s or­phan army heart­break

The plight of the quake-hit na­tion’s chil­dren is a night­mare for aid groups, write VI­VIAN SEQUERA and BEN FOX

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THE CHIL­DREN with no names lay mute in a cor­ner of the Gen­eral Hospi­tal grounds in Port-au-Prince, three among thou­sands of boys and girls set adrift in the wake of Haiti’s earth­quake. “Hi, Joe, how are you?” the Amer­i­can doc­tor tried, us­ing a pet name the staff had given a boy of about 11. There was no re­sponse. “Joe”, “Baby Se­bas­tian” and the girl who didn’t even have a nick­name hadn’t spo­ken or cried since they were brought in over the pre­vi­ous 48 hours – by neigh­bours, passers-by, no one knows who. “Se­bas­tian”, only a week old, was said to have been taken from the arms of his dead mother.

They’re lucky: Haitian-born Dr Win­ston Price and the staff were treat­ing them for in­fec­tions and other ail­ments. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of other hun­gry and thirsty chil­dren are scat­tered among Port-auPrince’s squat­ter camps of sur­vivors, without pro­tec­tion against dis­ease or child preda­tors – of­ten with no­body to care for them.

“There’s an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion un­ac­com­pa­nied or or­phaned chil­dren or chil­dren who lost one par­ent,” said Kate Con­radt, a spokes­woman for the aid group Save the Chil­dren. “They are ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble.”

The UN chil­dren’s agency, Unicef, has es­tab­lished a spe­cial tent camp for girls and boys sep­a­rated from their par­ents in the Jan­uary 12 quake, and who are in dan­ger of fall­ing prey to child traf­fick­ers and other abusers. The Con­necti­cut-based Save the Chil­dren has set up “Child Spa­ces” in 13 makeshift set­tle­ments. The Red Cross and other groups are work­ing to re­unite fam­i­lies and get chil­dren into or­phan­ages.

The post-quake needs of Haiti’s chil­dren have out­run avail­able help. Some youngsters have been re­leased from hos­pi­tals with no one to care for them – there just aren’t enough beds.

“Health work­ers are be­ing ad­vised to mon­i­tor and send sep­a­rated/un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren to child-friendly spa­ces,” the UN hu­man­i­tar­ian of­fice said in its lat­est sit­u­a­tion re­port.

The plight of the young is poignant, even in a coun­try where the UN es­ti­mates a third of the 9 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion needs in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance in the quake’s af­ter­math. “We still have a huge dis­tance to go,” said John Holmes, the UN re­lief co­or­di­na­tor.

That was ev­i­dent in Port-au-Prince’s streets, al­leys and crum­bled door­ways, where hand­writ­ten mes­sages begged for help. In the Ju­ve­nat neigh­bour­hood, a group of 50 fam­i­lies hung a white sheet from a door­way, with this plea scrawled in green: “We need food as­sis­tance, wa­ter and medicine”.

It was ev­i­dent, too, among the thou­sands press­ing against Haitian po­lice at a food­dis­tri­bu­tion site in the Cite Soleil slum. They swung sticks to beat back the crowd.

Brazil­ian troops in ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers con­trolled a tightly packed line of earth­quake sur­vivors wait­ing for food in the broil­ing sun by fir­ing pep­per spray and train­ing their guns on the jostling, rowdy crowd. The line stretched be­tween the par­tially col­lapsed Na­tional Palace and en­tirely de­stroyed Supreme Court.

One sol­dier loaded a shot­gun and re­turned their taunts by shout­ing back in­sults in Cre­ole. Some were of­fended, oth­ers amused at hear­ing a Brazil­ian trooper in­sult­ing them in their own lan­guage.

“They treat us like an­i­mals, they beat us, but we are hun­gry peo­ple,” said Muller Bel­le­garde, 30.

Sev­eral left without get­ting food, fear­ful of the pep­per spray, the sol­diers, and thugs who were grab­bing food from re­ceivers.

Many said they ap­pre­ci­ate the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse and un­der no cir­cum­stances want the Haitian gov­ern­ment to han­dle aid de­liv­er­ies, but sug­gested Haitian churches could pro­vide more or­derly and re­spect­ful venues for dis­tri­bu­tions, with Haitian com­mu­ni­ties or­gan­is­ing se­cu­rity.

“The help is good, but the way they’re do­ing it is bad. This is an­ar­chy,” Thomas Louis, 40, try­ing to get rice and oil for his two ba­bies, aged two and six months. “This is not aid. This is a way to put peo­ple down.”

Also on Tues­day, Haitians in a crowd of loot­ers pulled a man from the rub­ble of a store that had been re­peat­edly scav­enged, and called for help from US sol­diers, who treated him for a bro­ken leg and se­vere de­hy­dra­tion.

Rico Dib­riv­ell, 35, claimed he had been trapped since the earth­quake. The mil­i­tary pro­vided no de­tails about how he man­aged to sur­vive, say­ing in a state­ment that the man’s fam­ily said he had been miss­ing for two weeks.

More than 100 peo­ple have been un­earthed by res­cue teams since the quake, and many more bytheir neigh­bours, but most of those were in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math and au­thor­i­ties say it is un­likely for any­one to sur­vive more than 72 hours without wa­ter.

Last Satur­day, an in­ter­na­tional team of res­cuers un­earthed a shop clerk who they be­lieved had been buried since the earth­quake. The mon­u­men­tal scale of the Haiti dis­as­ter – per­haps 200 000 dead, a cap­i­tal city on its knees – has se­verely strained the world’s abil­ity to get re­lief sup­plies through Port-au-Prince’s over­loaded air­port and crip­pled sea­port.

Some 800 to 1 000 aid flights were still await­ing per­mis­sion to land, a seven-day back­log, UN and Euro­pean of­fi­cials re­ported this week. On top of that, “trucks are needed”, UN spokes­woman Elis­a­beth Byrs said in Geneva – es­pe­cially small trucks be­cause “the streets are ex­tremely con­gested”.

The UN’s Holmes es­ti­mated that 2 mil­lion peo­ple need food, but only 500 000 have re­ceived some so far.

The med­i­cal pic­ture has im­proved, but re­mains crit­i­cal. World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion spokesman Paul Gar­wood said more med­i­cal staff is needed, es­pe­cially re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion spe­cial­ists, to help with the post­op­er­a­tive re­cov­ery of 200 000 peo­ple who have had am­pu­ta­tions or other surgery.

Haitians and vol­un­teers from dozens of coun­tries, work­ing around the clock, were still per­form­ing up to 100 am­pu­ta­tions a day in some hos­pi­tals.

At the Gen­eral Hospi­tal, Price strode from tent to tent check­ing on the 81 chil­dren un­der his care. Staff in­ter­rupted the tall, bald­ing pe­di­a­tri­cian with a string of ques­tions: “Do you know about this baby?” “Where’s the med­i­ca­tion?” “Where will we sleep tonight?”

Of the name­less, speech­less trio, he was treat­ing young Joe for an in­fec­tion ooz­ing from both eyes. The 3kg Baby Se­bas­tian, in a white di­a­per dec­o­rated with sheep, had di­ar­rhoea. The un­named girl, about 10, lay list­lessly and stared up­ward. She had an eye in­fec­tion, but would soon be picked up by an or­phan­age, Price said.

With no clues to their past, Price could only won­der. “Maybe some of th­ese par­ents are not even looking be­cause their house was de­stroyed and they might think the kid was in­side. But maybe the kid was pulled out, so they are miss­ing each other.”

Chil­dren left alone are ev­ery­where. At one of the 13 Save the Chil­dren sites, about 25 chil­dren have no adult rel­a­tives tak­ing care of them, Con­radt said. She said the group has helped some 6 000 chil­dren since the quake.

The aid group’s “Child Spa­ces” are cor­doned-off ar­eas where chil­dren can play un­der su­per­vi­sion,” run around be­ing chil­dren, giv­ing them a chance to re­turn to nor­malcy as much as they can”.

Such ar­eas also pro­tect chil­dren against the po­ten­tial for ab­duc­tion by child traf­fick­ers, a chronic prob­lem in pre-quake Haiti, where thou­sands were handed over to other fam­i­lies into lives of do­mes­tic servi­tude, said Deb Barry, an emer­gency pro­tec­tion ad­viser with Save the Chil­dren.

She said her or­gan­i­sa­tion was work­ing to track down ev­ery ru­mour it hears about threats to stranded chil­dren, “but we haven’t been able to ver­ify those thus far”.

In Geneva, a Unicef spokes­woman, Veronique Taveau, said the or­gan­i­sa­tion had been told of chil­dren dis­ap­pear­ing from hos­pi­tals. “It’s dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish the re­al­ity,” she said, but added that Unicef has strength­ened se­cu­rity at hos­pi­tals and or­phan­ages.

Save the Chil­dren, the Red Cross and other or­gan­i­sa­tions, mean­while, are try­ing to es­tab­lish a joint data­base of in­for­ma­tion to try to re­unite sep­a­rated fam­i­lies.

Gov­ern­ment spokes­woman Marie Lau­rence Jo­ce­lyn-Lassegue, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, said Haitian of­fi­cials have tem­po­rar­ily halted new adop­tions be­cause of con­cerns about cor­rup­tion and care­less­ness in the sys­tem.

“Some chil­dren we don’t know if the par­ents are alive or not,” Jo­ce­lyn-Lassegue said. – Sapa-AP

TIME FOR A SMILE: Chil­dren pose for the cam­era in an im­pro­vised camp in Port-auPrince this week.

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