SA team struggle to enter Haiti

2010-01-18 00:00

A SEARCH and rescue team from South Africa, which joined other teams from around the world in Haiti yesterday evening, found that just getting to the Caribbean island was immensely challenging.

Gift of the Givers founder, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, said the 10-member team had been forced to find an alternate route to Haiti after they were unable to land at the airport in the capital Port-au-Prince. “They left on Thursday and went to Paris and then Guatemala, but when they couldn’t get to the airport in Haiti, I had to re-route them to the Dominican Republic,” he said.

To make matters worse, when they arrived in the Dominican Republic, they discovered that many search and rescue teams and relief organisations were having trouble getting into Haiti. “People are travelling to the border, which is about six hours away from Santo Domingo, and then being turned back,” Sooliman said.

Fortunately for the South Africans, they have partnered with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which has infrastructure and staff on the ground, and has helped the Gift of the Givers team to set up a base. They have also accompanied the rescuers to Haiti as part of a secure convoy as all foreign teams, according to Eyewitness News, have been forbidden from working at night, and anyone driving into the country has to do so under the watchful eye of marines.

Heavily armed American soldiers are also patrolling the border, emphasising the security risk posed by the Haitian people themselves, who have reportedly begun looting and attacking each other for scraps of food and fresh drinking water.

Led by Ahmed Bam, the Gift of the Givers search and rescue team — which is skilled in disaster response, urban rescue and advanced life support — intends using its R2,5 million of heavy rescue equipment to help locate survivors in the rubble, and to provide medicines to those in need.

Sixteen more rescuers are preparing to leave for Haiti today with a further R2,5 million worth of equipment and medical supplies.

And, later in the week, three teams of medical specialists, including orthopaedic, trauma and maxillo facial surgeons, anaesthetists and advanced life support paramedics, will fly out to help care for the injured. All three of these teams will carry essential medical supplies including anaesthetics, antibio­tics, painkillers and wound dressings with them.

The charity also has plans to send a 100 ton Boeing 747 filled with R5 million worth of essential supplies, including tents, blankets, water purification tablets, high-energy and protein supplements, bottled water and additional medicines, to Haiti on Friday.

The relief effort has the support of President Jacob Zuma, who met with Sooliman last Friday, the South African International Relations and Health departments, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and the Anglican Church.

Authorities believe that as many as 300 000 people may have died in last Tuesday’s earthquake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Asked how local residents could support the relief effort, Sooliman said they could make contributions by telephoning 0800 786 777 or by depositing money directly into Gift of the Givers, Standard Bank, Pietermaritzburg, account number: 052137228, branch code: 057525.

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