Haiti insecurity mounts

2010-01-29 07:22

Port-au-Prince - Haiti's vulnerable quake victims faced rising insecurity on Thursday with criminals raping women in camps and violence erupting during handouts of sparse foreign aid, officials warned.

But a ray of hope penetrated the gloom as doctors marvelled at how a 16-year-old girl who was pulled from the rubble of the capital a day earlier managed to survive 15 days buried alive without any food or water.

With aid still only trickling in despite a vast international relief effort launched after the January 12 quake, hundreds of thousands of homeless people in tent camps are not only short of food but also at risk from rising crime.

"Only Jesus Christ is watching over us," said Mariana Merise, 40, who lives in a camp by the crumpled National Palace that residents said was plagued by gangs stealing their meagre possessions.

Because of the lack of electricity in Port-au-Prince, "bandits are taking advantage to harass and rape women and young girls under the tents", national police chief Mario Andresol said.

Thousands of prisoners who escaped from the main jail on the night of the 7.0-magnitude quake are "running wild" and the police force is stretched to cope as hundreds of its members were dead or missing, he said.

The deputy head of the UN mission in Haiti, Anthony Banbury, told AFP that desperate survivors waiting in line for aid were sometimes turning violent.

More needs to be done

While the influx of aid was vital after the quake, which killed around 170 000 people, "at the same it can be a source of insecurity because it attracts big crowds and there can be disorder around food distribution".

Speaking in Jacmel, a ruined resort town outside Port-au-Prince, Banbury said it was "absolutely necessary that we get enough food, enough water, enough shelter for the people, and enough security".

"I don't think any of us are anywhere near being close to being satisfied, because so much more needs to be done," he added.

In a symbol of Haitian resilience, rescuers said quake survivor Darlene Etienne was severely dehydrated but stable on board a French hospital ship after rescuers dragged her from under a collapsed house on Wednesday.

"I am incapable of explaining it medically, but she told me this morning that she didn't eat anything, didn't drink anything," said Evelyne Lambert, the chief doctor on the Siroco, which is docked off Haiti's coast.

Neighbours alerted rescuers after hearing her cries. Doctors feared her heart might stop because she was so weakened by her ordeal, the longest of any Haitian survivor so far.

"To my knowledge, she is one of the most extreme cases of survival," added Colonel Michel Orcel, who runs the French field hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Hurricane season

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, former US president Bill Clinton made an emotional speech to global political and business leaders urging them to help the poorest nation in the Americas "rise from the ashes".

"They need to be helped through this hideous natural disaster," said Clinton, a UN special envoy for Haiti, as he kicked off an initiative to get private sector help for the country.

International aid pledges and funding for Haiti topped $2bn on Thursday, the United Nations said, but the task of getting the country back on its feet remains huge.

More than three-quarters of Port-au-Prince has been destroyed and will need rebuilding, UN deputy special envoy Paul Farmer told a US Senate committee.

Scavengers continue to pillage materials to build shelter, clambering over the foul-smelling ruins where countless bodies are buried despite police efforts to chase off the looters.

The start of hurricane season in May could make the situation in Haiti even worse, with around 200 000 families without a roof, warned Margareta Wahlstrom, the UN representative for disaster risk reduction.

In a setback, the US military said engineers would need eight to 10 weeks to repair one of the two main piers at the capital's crucial port after aftershocks knocked it out of operation shortly after it was repaired.

The United States has spearheaded relief efforts, sending in 20 000 troops, 23 ships and more than 90 aircraft to help deliver aid and medical care to survivors, said General Douglas Fraser, head of the US Southern Command.