x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Grieving process begins for UN's Haiti workers

Caribbean earthquake that saw its local HQ collapse is the worst disaster to hit the world body in its 65-year history.

US rescuers carry Jens Christensen, a UN staff member, from the rubble of the UN headquarters on Sunday.
US rescuers carry Jens Christensen, a UN staff member, from the rubble of the UN headquarters on Sunday.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // Like all UN staff to survive Haiti's devastating earthquake, George Scheiber has barely had enough time to sleep, let alone grieve over the colleagues he lost in what has become the worst disaster to hit the world body in its 65-year history. The 44-year-old Spaniard fears he lost his fiancée, Nicole, when the UN headquarters in the rented-out Hotel Christopher came crashing down on the estimated 150 staffers working inside, killing some longtime UN employees.

The building had collapsed with such force in Tuesday's earthquake that concrete turned to dust. When the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, visited on Sunday, sniffer dogs continued to search the wreckage and rescue teams spoke to a trapped survivor. "We really have to remain positive," said Mr Scheiber, a trainer in Haiti's UN peacekeeping mission for the past 19 months who has also served in Congo and Yemen.

"Although there are casualties, there are many of us who are still here, and being together and trying to deal with the situation makes us stronger. "This is not the first time I've been through the grieving process. The more times you go through it the stronger and more rational you get. It's important that we stay healthy, both mentally and physically, and united." He described his girlfriend, a 40-year-old German woman he met four years ago when both served in the UN's Congo mission, as "caring, generous, kind and beautiful".

"I can only think of positive adjectives to describe her," he added. The collapse of the headquarters building left staff disorientated for several key hours, with the UN bosses in Haiti - including Mr Ban's envoy, the Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, and his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa - crushed under a mountain of twisted steel and rubble. Rescue teams continued scouring the five-storey block on Sunday, letting out a round of applause when a Danish UN development worker, Jens Christensen, was freed from under three metres of rubble, where he had been for 117 hours.

Mr Christensen banged on concrete to alert rescuers, a team of firefighters from Virginia who spent six hours cutting through steel and masonry before carrying out the emaciated survivor on a stretcher. "I'm fine," he told reporters while being loaded into an ambulance. Rescue teams say those trapped inside benefit from balmy weather and may survive for days thanks to concrete-layered buildings collapsing in a pancake fashion, often leaving safety pockets in which survivors can hold out uncrushed.

Not everyone has been so lucky. One UN development worker, Marc-André Franche, was among those waiting anxiously beside the rubble keeping vigil, hoping his girlfriend, Alexandra Duguay, would also soon be pulled from the wreckage. Friends and family of the French-Canadian woman supported the distraught Mr Franche from overseas, setting up a Facebook page called Hope for Alexandra Duguay and posting such messages as: "Stay strong. They're coming to get you!"

Outside, many Haitians still wander the streets in the clothes they wore at 4.53pm on Tuesday, when the magnitude-7.0 earthquake levelled more than one third of the capital's buildings, leaving thousands homeless and as many as 100,000 dead. Although global relief efforts were initially hampered by a logjam at the capital's single-runway international airport, food, water and medical supplies began reaching the beleaguered population across parts of Port-au-Prince yesterday.

After the hotel disaster and the loss of local UN leadership, David Wimhurst, spokesman for the blue helmet operation, said other staff quickly stepped into the breaches and UN relief and security workers were now working round-the-clock. "We're working very hard both to put ourselves back together and help the Haitians," Mr Wimhurst said. "These are difficult circumstances; we no longer have our houses, so we're all sleeping on floors and lawns in this compound - but we are working to rebuild and help the Haitian government."

A UN logistics centre known as the "log-base" became the UN's new command centre: a maze of metal huts, satellite dishes, radio masts and hangar-sized tents housing hundreds of injured quake victims located north of Toussaint L'Ouverture airport. The UN hub co-ordinates about 9,000 troops and police from more than 40 countries, a peacekeeping mission known as Minustah that was sent to stabilise Haiti in 2004 after machete-wielding gangs and former soldiers ousted the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

They include 600 Jordanian soldiers who are rescuing trapped Haitians and 300 police trying to secure a capital city of three million people where food, water and fuel shortages have sparked violent street clashes. "Everybody is working very hard," said Major Ahmed al Ramadeh as he paced around the compound trying to get a Qatari search and rescue team into the devastated capital. "For the first two days, nobody went to sleep, working hard everywhere."

The Haiti earthquake comes at the end of a disastrous decade for the world body, which saw bomb attacks on its Baghdad headquarters in 2003 and a refugee agency office in Algiers in 2007, and lethal attacks on staff in Pakistan and Afghanistan last year. While visiting the collapsed headquarters, Mr Ban spoke of the "gravest single loss for the United Nations" since it was formed in 1945 and the need to mitigate against risks from earthquakes and other natural disasters.

"We do not have to create UN heroes. We have only to look around. There are many heroes. I am proud to serve with you." Eulogies already pouring out for Annabi and da Costa, the UN's top men in Haiti, are comparable to those after the death of a UN peacekeeping icon, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed alongside 14 UN colleagues in the Baghdad blast seven years ago. Mr Ban described Annabi as a "mild man with the heart of a lion" and among the UN's "most dedicated and committed sons". The US ambassador to the world body, Susan Rice, said he had helped Haiti "turn a corner after the suffering it endured in recent years".

For Minustah's spokesman, Mr Wimhurst, the UN headquarters collapse is nothing short of "disastrous, a catastrophe" for the world body, with the death toll currently standing at 40 but expected to climb to more than 100 as more bodies are dug out. "Sergio, Hédi, Luiz, all those who died were very experienced senior peacekeeping UN leaders, enormously respected with a huge body of friends and colleagues - so it's a loss that's indescribable," he said.

Although officials in New York describe the earthquake as the UN's greatest single disaster since foundation, this is just a "statistic that's out there" for Mr Wimhurst and others in Haiti. "For us it's just the biggest disaster in our lives." Back at the "log-base", UN staffers were kicking into gear yesterday, "getting back on our feet, although a little bit wobbly" as they sent rescue teams into the capital to provide food to 60,000 hungry residents of the devastated city, he added.

For Mr Scheiber, whose fiancée may have perished in the office alongside her boss, Luiz, the needs of the three million Haitians - one third of the Caribbean nation's population - affected by last week's quake remain the focus. "As days go by the likelihood that they will find her gets less," he said. "Today they found somebody who is alive, so we still have to have hope. But the biggest hope we have is that, if she is not found, that we have to be strong and remember that she is still here with us."

jreinl@thenational.ae