x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Long wait for help at quake's epicentre

'There is nothing here - no hospitals, no government, no police. The people have passed many days without food or water'.

UN soldiers from Sri Lanka stand guard over a queue of Haitian survivors during food distribution in downtown Léogâne.
UN soldiers from Sri Lanka stand guard over a queue of Haitian survivors during food distribution in downtown Léogâne.

LÉOGÂNE, HAITI // Seven months pregnant and with her broken leg bound in a makeshift splint of cardboard and bandages, Chantale Zamer groans after riding a motorbike pillion through the midday sun in a desperate search for doctors.

Like many Haitians from the port town of Léogâne - the epicentre of the devastating earthquake that levelled much of this Caribbean nation - the 22-year-old urgently needs to benefit from aid that has begun reaching the capital, Port-au-Prince, some 29km to the east. The 7.0-magnitude quake devastated swathes of a coastline that was until recently a popular weekend beach retreat, pumping lava through the earth's crust and sending jets of boiling water steaming from the Canal de Sud metres into the air.

"We just need to see a doctor," said Ms Zamer's anxious boyfriend, 28-year-old businessman Antoine Louisant, while sprinkling water on the expectant mother's forehead. "We have nothing left. No money, only the little water that's left here in this bottle." The Léogâne residents were among hundreds of earthquake survivors who headed to the College Crétien New Missions after a local radio station broadcast news that medics had reached an area hitherto blocked by quake-ravaged roads.

But arrivals quickly realised that the Christian mission offered "nothing but Band-Aids" and a water source deemed unsafe to drink. Dozens looked on as a screaming naked woman had tender wounds on her chest and thighs dressed by amateur medics. "There is nothing here - no hospitals, no government, no police," said Alfonse Dieudsi, 22, a teacher heading from the capital to rural western Haiti. "The people here have passed many days without food, water or sanitation. Nobody is coming. The government does not care about them."

Léogâne was formerly a sun-soaked town renowned for its distilleries and stone sculptors, but on January 12 it became home to the 137,000 Haitians most badly hit by the nation's worst earthquake in 150 years. More than 80 per cent of the town's buildings were destroyed, forcing survivors to salvage pots, pans and food from the rubble and build huts out of plastic sheets and sticks, forming a labyrinthine shanty town on the playing fields beside Anacaona College.

On Monday, Prof Anthony Paul, from the Alabama-based National Association for the Prevention of Starvation, said his six medics from Alabama were among the first aid workers to reach the wounded residents of Léogâne's sprawling camps. "Everything has been focused on Port-au-Prince so far - but this place is 10 times worse," he said. "Look at the damage to the houses. All the hospitals have come crashing down. These people have wounds that need dressing, broken bones. They haven't seen anyone."

As he spoke, a Haitian woman in her twenties collapsed in the tropical heat - which doctors speedily diagnosed as the result of a head injury sustained during the earthquake before sending her for treatment in the capital. Residents of Léogâne, a sugar cane town, describe the powerful roar of a merciless earthquake that buried hundreds of children under three collapsed schools, the École des Frères, the École des Soeurs and the École des Infirmières.

David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN's blue helmet operation in Haiti, known as Minustah, said 850 Canadian troops aimed to get aid workers into the earthquake epicentre zone by opening roads that were ripped apart by seismic ruptures. "There is no miracle. Every disaster - a tsunami, an earthquake or a war - there is no such thing as instant aid for everybody," he said. "It takes time to get in and get organised and reach the beneficiaries. And we're working non-stop doing everything we can."

But for anxious mother Carline Mervilus - and many others struggling to survive on the road that connects the capital with Léogâne - that support from overseas donors may arrive too late. The 35-year-old from Montreal waited outside the UN's Sri Lankan-staffed base, Army Camp Brache, hoping peacekeepers could get her three young children, mother and father back to the nearby capital and onwards to Canada.

"The UN is not helping us," she said. "They're waiting for the commander to come. I'm angry at their lack of action. They're sitting inside with their food and water and they're OK - and I'm locked outside and cannot get in." jreinl@thenational.ae