x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UN critical of Haiti's handling of aftermath

United Nations warns island government that evacuating victims is not the solution as towns in the north have worse supply shortages.

Thousands of Haitians wait at the port as they attempt to leave Port-au-Prince 12 days after the earthquake.
Thousands of Haitians wait at the port as they attempt to leave Port-au-Prince 12 days after the earthquake.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // With chaotic scenes at bus and ferry terminals, reports of fleeing Haitians lacking supplies in the provinces and disagreements over a government resettlement programme, the UN has criticised the Haitian government's handling of the worst earthquake to strike this Caribbean nation in more than a century.

Roads leaving Port-au-Prince were gridlocked over the weekend as thousands of Haitians fled the devastated capital on buses, lorries and bicycles. Others boarded densely packed boats hoping to find shelter, food and water in provincial towns. But UN officials warn that government moves to evacuate the capital with free buses was only moving the problem along, and that the exodus would face worse shortages of supplies in towns to the north such as Gonaïves and Saint-Marc.

Niurka Piñeiro, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, said tents, medicines and food aid were concentrated in Port-au-Prince, and those fleeing the devastated capital would find fewer relief supplies in provincial destinations. "I think the government is under incredible pressure and people wanted to leave," Ms Piñeiro said. "They were scared of the earthquake and the aftershocks and they had no food, no option, no friends. It seemed the right thing at that moment, but it just moved the problem to another place."

Those fleeing the capital are shunted from one town to another, many with "less infrastructure than Port-au-Prince", she said. One popular destination, the northern city of Gonaïves, has never fully recovered from successive hurricanes. Estimates suggest as many as 400,000 Haitians have evacuated the capital, previously home to about three million, with government officials saying they faced pressure from survivors to provide safe passage out of Port-au-Prince.

"The government cannot let people [live] in the street. They do not have houses," the information minister, Marie Laurence-Jocelyn Lassegue, said. "We have to take them from the street and put them somewhere where they can eat, where they can sleep. This is our reality. We do not have a choice." The minister defended the government from criticism that officials called off the search for those trapped under rubble too early - with survivors being freed from under mountains of broken concrete as recently as Saturday.

She said the government had not called off the search - a decision widely reported to have taken place on Friday - saying disinformation was being spread via the internet. "This is a rumour," she said. "The prime minster and the president never said that." The UN criticised government plans to relocate the estimated 692,000 Port-au-Prince residents left homeless by the magnitude-7 temblor of January 12, which killed more than 110,000 people and toppled more than one-third of the city's buildings.

Ms Piñeiro said a 40-hectare site north of the suburb of Croix de Bouquets was being cleared by UN bulldozers to house 10,000 homeless earthquake survivors in tents, before erecting permanent homes with money from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). With heavy traffic clogging roads and making a 12km journey to the city take as long as two hours to complete, residents of the planned suburb will be detached from the city and unable to access the jobs that will drive economic recovery.

"We are not advocating for these kind of towns too far out because people need to continue whatever economic activity they had before, and, if you relocate people way out there, they have no way of coming back," Ms Piñeiro said. Another identified site, along the Route de Tabarre and beyond the US Embassy, as well as proposed camps in Léogâne, 29km west of the capital and near the epicentre of the earthquake, were more suitable, she added.

The government minister, Ms Lassegue, refused to comment on the selection of Croix de Bouquets, saying only "we want the people to go out from the streets and to relocate them with all and respect all the rules of humanitarian people". She said the land had been given to the government without charge. The owner of the site, a Haitian businessman, Jean Claude Verdier, said: "I'm not giving any land. You know, they [the government] just say they want to do something, they start talking to me and I don't know what they want to do."

The UN provided no details of the financial deal between the government and landowners, with Ms Piñeiro saying she had "no idea" about the arrangements. "The government identified the sites and we do the temporary shelter - the identification of the land, that was the government," she said. Transparency International, a Germany-based advocacy group, ranked Haiti as among the world's most corrupt countries in last year's survey and has described graft in the public sector as "endemic" in this nation of 9.6 million people.

Oscar Veone was one of thousands of Haitians vacating the capital this weekend. The mattresses, blankets and pots he dug from the rubble of his shattered home were loaded on to his uncle's "tap-tap", or pickup truck, with cousins and siblings hanging off the back. The 25-year-old builder lost his sister in the earthquake, and planned to leave the city to join relatives in Ganthier, about 40km south-east.

Like many in this mass exodus, his plans to find food, work and water in the coming weeks remained unclear. "When we get there, we'll just unload the car and figure out what we're going to do next. We'll sleep in the street tonight, set up wherever we can find," he said. "I cannot figure out right now what I'm going to do. What I had, everything is lost, so I really don't know right now." jreinl@thenational.ae