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2 weeks after quake, food scarce for neediest Haitians

Thursday, January 28, 2010

(Photo)
A woman makes cookies out of mud to sell in the Cite Soleil neighborhood Wednesday in Port-au-Prince. Made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, the cookies were already one of few options for the poorest in Haiti even before the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.
(RODRIGO ABD ~ Associated Press)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Street vendors openly sell U.S.-donated rice by the cupful from bags marked "not for resale." At a homeless camp, a young woman told of thieves who tried to sell her own food back to her.

As she spoke, a gang of youths pushed into a line of people waiting for water Wednesday, shoving an elderly woman, who screamed and swung her bucket at their heads.

Such scenes and worse are common among crowds of Haitians lining up for rice, beans or ready-to-eat meals, forcing U.N. peacekeepers to fire pepper spray and Haitian police to swing sticks to restore control.

Whether locked up in warehouses or stolen by thugs from people's hands, food from the world's aid agencies still isn't getting to enough hungry Haitians, leaving the strongest and fittest with the most.

"These people are just hungry," U.N. spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese said of the thousands thronging food distribution points. He said U.N. peacekeepers would reinforce security at the sites.

Two weeks into the quake catastrophe, food remains scarce for many of the neediest survivors despite the efforts of the United Nations, the U.S. military and scores of international aid agencies. Haitian leaders say coordination has been poor, while relief experts say this disaster is presenting unprecedented challenges.

Clutching a grocery bag filled only with small packets of donated water, 25-year-old Julia Jean-Francois shrugged in resignation Wednesday.

"I lost all the rice, beans and oil that were distributed last week. A group of young men shoved me and grabbed the bags and ran away," said the young woman, whose mother was killed in the quake.

An hour later, one of the men returned and offered to sell her the same food for the equivalent of $18. She refused, relying instead on a communal kitchen she formed with some homeless neighbors.

Police didn't help

She said Haitian police patrolling nearby did nothing while people were robbed. "We complained, and they got into their truck and left," she said.

The World Food Program acknowledged that rising tensions and security incidents -- "including people rushing distribution points for food" -- have hampered deliveries.

Since the first days of the massive relief effort, however, other problems have also delayed aid -- blocked and congested roads, shortages of trucks, a crippled seaport and an overloaded Port-au-Prince airport.

"The unblocking of the logistical bottlenecks is an absolute priority," the European Commission said Wednesday, describing a seven-day backlog of 1,000 relief flights seeking permission to land.

"Many mistakes have to be rectified in order to bring help to the people who need it," Haitian President Rene Preval complained to reporters.

The U.N. food agency urgently appealed to governments for more cash for food for Haiti -- $800 million to feed 2 million people through December, more than quadruple the $196 million already pledged.

Some 1 million Haitians have been made homeless in the Jan. 12 quake, which killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Surviving in the open in impromptu squatter areas, these displaced people remain in urgent need of emergency shelters, said the International Organization for Migration, which has so far been able to fly in only a fraction of the estimated 200,000 family-size tents that are needed.

As a stopgap, the organization was trying to rush in tens of thousands of tarpaulins and plastic sheets -- an upgrade for people miserably squatting under bed sheets or cardboard.

The Geneva-based agency, the Haitian government and other groups are working to clear land and install facilities for tent camps on Port-au-Prince's outskirts -- an option meant to last only three to five months, before the heavy rains of summer and hurricane season.

On food aid, the World Food Program says it has reached more than 450,000 people since the quake, but U.N. officials estimate 2 million people need regular supplies.

The senior U.S. officer in Haiti said Haitian families simply cannot rely on any particular location for rations.

Food is "flooding" into the city, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen told reporters, "but it's being delivered pretty much in terms of where we can get to and where we can distribute it," not always in locations that are "sustained every day."

At some regular distribution points, such as near the Champs de Mars plaza where thousands of homeless are living, daily food handouts have drawn unruly lines of frantic people. Desperation boiled over earlier this week and Uruguayan peacekeepers retreated as young men rushed forward to grab U.S.-donated bags of beans and rice. A pregnant woman collapsed and was trampled.

Fears of official corruption also are surfacing.

Paul Coroleuski of the U.S.-based Convoy of Hope, which has distributed aid in Haiti for three years, said he has more than 100 tons of food in a Port-au-Prince warehouse ready to hand out, but it has been delayed for days by Haitian officials who say they will take over distribution.

Private agencies like his worry that Haitian officials "will do what they always have done, which is the government takes care of the government and the people are secondary," he said.

Haitian officials denied the government plans to take over food distribution from private agencies.

Coroleuski's frustration and distrust of the government is echoed in Port-au-Prince's streets.

"If they turn it over to the Haitian government, they would take it all for themselves," said Muller Bellegarde, 30, as he waited for food in the unrelenting tropical sun.

Haitians remember that when the government took charge of delivering international aid to the city of Gonaives after deadly hurricane floods in 2008, much of it ended up sold on the black market.


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