Haitians pray, cry for help
Published: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 5:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 5:23 p.m.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Prayers of thanksgiving and cries for help rose from a roofless cathedral and the huddled homeless Sunday, the sixth day of an epic humanitarian crisis that was straining the world's ability to respond and igniting flare-ups of violence amid the rubble.
A leading aid group echoed complaints about the supply bottleneck and skewed priorities at the U.S.-controlled airport. The general in charge said the U.S. military was "working aggressively" to speed up deliveries.
In the ruins of the Port-Au-Prince cathedral, gathered beneath shattered stained glass for their first Sunday Mass since Tuesday's earthquake, survivors were told by their priest, "We are in the hands of God now." But anger mounted hourly that other helping hands were slow in getting food and water to millions in need.
"The government is a joke. The U.N. is a joke," Jacqueline Thermiti, 71, said as she lay in the dust with dozens of dying elderly outside their collapsed nursing home near the airport. "We're a kilometer (half a mile) from the airport and we're going to die of hunger."
Water was delivered to more people around the capital, where an estimated 300,000 were living in the streets, but food and medicine were still scarce. Pregnant women gave birth in the streets. The injured arrived in wheelbarrows and on people's backs at hurriedly erected field hospitals.
Authorities warned of looting and violence. In downtown Port-au-Prince, where people set bonfires to burn uncollected bodies, gunfire rang out and bands of machete-wielding young men, their faces covered with bandanas, roamed the streets.
"This is one of the most serious crises in decades," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he flew into the Haitian capital. "The damage, destruction and loss of life are just overwhelming."
A reliable death toll may be weeks away, but the Pan American Health Organization estimates 50,000 to 100,000 died in the 7.0-magnitude tremor, and Haitian officials believe the number is higher.
Celebrating Mass at the once-proud pink-and-white cathedral, now a shell of rubble where a rotting body lay in the entrance, the Rev. Eric Toussaint preached of thanksgiving to a small congregation of old women and other haggard survivors assembled under the open sky.
"Why give thanks to God? Because we are here," Toussaint said. "What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now."
Mondesir Raymone, a 27-year-old single mother of two, was grateful. "We have survived by the grace of God," she said.
But others were angry.
"It's a catastrophe and it is God who has put this upon us," said Jean-Andre Noel, 39, a computer technician. "Those who live in Haiti need everything. We need food, we need drink, we need medicine. We need help."
Were his parishioners being helped? Toussaint was asked. "Not yet," he replied.
U.N. officials said they were feeding 40,000 people, but must raise that to 2 million within a month. The U.S. aid chief, Rajiv Shah, after visiting Port-au-Prince, told "Fox News Sunday" he believed the U.S. distributed 130,000 "meals ready to eat" on Saturday, but the need was much larger. "We're really trying to address it," he said.
The Geneva-based aid group Doctors Without Borders was blunt: "There is little sign of significant aid distribution."
The "major difficulty," it said, was the bottleneck at the airport, under U.S. military control. It said a flight carrying its own inflatable hospital was denied landing clearance and was being trucked overland from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, almost 200 miles away in the Dominican Republic, delaying its arrival by 24 hours.
French, Brazilian and other officials had earlier complained about the U.S.-run airport's refusal to allow their supply planes to land. A World Food Program official told The New York Times that the Americans' priorities were out of sync, allowing too many U.S. military flights and too few aid deliveries.
The U.S. has completely taken over Port-au-Prince airspace and incoming flights have to register with Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, said Chief Master Sgt. Ty Foster, Air Force spokesman here.
"You won't have the stray cats and dogs allowed to come into the airspace and clog it up," he said.
The on-the-ground U.S. commander in Haiti, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, acknowledged the bottleneck issue.
"We're working aggressively to open up other ways to get in here. The ports are part of that," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The U.S. Navy has dispatched a salvage ship to Haiti to assess and possibly begin repairs to the Port-au-Prince seaport, which has been rendered useless for incoming aid because of quake damage.
Keen reported "increasing incidents of violence," as a weakened Haitian police force and U.N. peacekeeping contingent were overwhelmed.
In the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Delmas, a crowd gathered Sunday around the bodies of two accused looters, who had been beaten to death by angry residents. Onlookers said they were known criminals who had escaped from the main prison when it collapsed in the quake. About 4,000 inmates escaped.
Angry survivors loitered amid piles of burning garbage in the Bel-Air slum. "White guys, get the hell out!" they shouted in apparent frustration at the sight of more and more foreigners in their streets who were not delivering help.
They also sounded furious with President Rene Preval, who hasn't been seen at a rescue site or gone on radio to address the nation since the quake struck.
"Preval out! Aristide come back!" some shouted, appealing for a return of the populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in 2004. From his South African exile, Aristide said last week he wants to return to Haiti, but spoke of no concrete plans to do so.
The tragic scenes across this crippled city, choking on the stench of death — of people still dying in the streets, of hands desperately reaching out for water or food, of people on their knees praying for help — have depressed some of those working hardest to help.
The U.N. mission chief, Tunisian Hedi Annabi, and other top U.N. officials were killed in the collapse of their headquarters, among at least 40 confirmed dead. Hundreds of peacekeepers and other U.N. staff were missing.
At that destroyed U.N. building on Sunday, just 15 minutes after secretary-general Moon visited, rescuers lifted a Danish staff member alive from the ruins, U.N. officials reported. He was talking and was whisked away for medical treatment.
And at a collapsed Caribbean Supermarket where search teams from Florida and New York City worked overnight, a policeman reported that three people had been pulled out alive around 6 a.m.
More than 1,700 rescue workers had saved more than 70 lives since the quake, a U.N. spokeswoman said in Geneva.
"There are still people living" in collapsed buildings, Elisabeth Byrs told The Associated Press. "Hope continues."
In such conditions, she said, people might survive until Monday.
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