Haiti: We are accountable to the survivors, says a response leader

As she waited in a food distribution line late last week, Marie Therese, newly widowed and bereaved, patient but tired, tersely summed up Haiti's current plight. Though thankful for the assistance from CWS and the ACT Alliance reaching her and others in the village of Gressier, Therese, 51, said: "It's like we're in a desert."

Man with CWS blanket
A blind man who survived Haiti's January 12 earthquake cradles a blanket and hygiene kit he received from Church World Service. He is part of a group of survivors with disabilities who are receiving special attention from ACT Alliance members.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT

By Chris Herlinger/CWS

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – As she waited in a food distribution  line late last week, Marie Therese, newly widowed and bereaved,  patient but tired, tersely summed up Haiti’s current plight.

Though thankful for the assistance from CWS and the ACT Alliance reaching her and others in the village of Gressier, Therese, 51, said: “It’s like we’re in a desert.”

In the nearly three weeks since the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti has indeed felt like it is a land bereft of much that makes for a dignified life.

Port-au-Prince’s downtown area, hit hardest by the quake, still looks and feels as if the disaster happened just days ago. Homes and apartments are crushed; the smell of rotting flesh wafts through the air; and the sides of some buildings jut out and look as if they are ready to fall into the street at any moment.

It is startling to see a building cut in half, with furniture and desks, filing cabinets and sinks suddenly exposed to the harsh midday sunlight – just as it is to see thousands of people, suddenly displaced, living in the makeshift displacement camps within and outside the capital city.

Yet the capacity of Haitians to embrace elements of normalcy is encouraging beyond words. That means dressing in your Sunday best to attend worship, offering a hand to neighbors or visitors, or as barber Charilien Charles, 25, has done, reestablish his business, complete with quake-cracked mirrors, within one of Port-au-Prince’s sprawling displacement camps.

Is business good? “Unpredictable,” Charles said, shrugging his shoulders, saying he has to be patient.

Unpredictability and patience are also watch words as the international community continues its role in providing humanitarian assistance to Haiti – an effort that by all accounts was slow in starting and is still not seamless, given the many daunting challenges that faced Haiti before and immediately following the quake.

 “The devastation is beyond comprehension,” said Martin Coria, Latin  America/Caribbean regional coordinator for Church World Service and ACT,  reiterating a point that is probably all too well known by now but which must  be stressed given the logistical difficulties in getting aid to disaster survivors.

Something else that needs repeating is that aid workers themselves continue to live in the streets because of the wide-spread devastation, according to Sylvia Raulo, country representative in Haiti for ACT/Lutheran World Federation. “Everyone here is dealing with this loss of life,” Raulo said.

Raulo knows that, three weeks into the response, donors are rightly concerned about whether aid is getting to those who need it, a concern she says is both legitimate and welcome.

 “We are accountable, first and foremost, to the survivors living in Haiti, and then to those abroad giving and pledging money,” she said. While Raulo said exact numbers of those receiving assistance are still being compiled, between 40,000 and 50,000 persons have been in assisted by CWS-supported ACT programs in the last three weeks in efforts that have included providing water, food, shelter, CWS Kits and Blankets, and psycho-social assistance.

Future efforts will focus on reconstruction of homes and schools, and on long-term food security – part of the ACT Alliance’s commitment and mandate “to look beyond immediate emergencies,” she said.

Raulo does not downplay challenges, either in Haiti or with the response. Aid efforts will have to deal with problems like government corruption and the unpredictability of events.

The Saturday (Jan. 31) distribution in Gressier, located some 20 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince, by LWF aid workers was proof that situations are not predictable, especially when people in rural areas find themselves in desperate situations.

A group of young men who were not on a list of recipients earlier compiled by LWF workers tried to disrupt the distribution that included food from Haiti and non-food items from CWS and ACT members in Finland.

 Local police also demanded tents that were being distributed and did little to control the crowd; the young LWF workers stood their ground and continued to direct aid to those who had been identified as particularly vulnerable, including families with pregnant women and young children.

Eventually, the crowd got unruly and a policewoman fired two shots in the air. The distribution was disrupted and LWF staff left the village, frustrated that their efforts had not gone as planned. “Yes, it’s complicated,” said distribution coordinator Sheyla Durandisse.  “There is a lot of pressure on the team.”

Fellow aid worker Emmanuela Blain, who had been at another LWF distribution a day earlier, admitted she and other aid workers were frustrated. “Yesterday we had a distribution that was perfect. Perfect.”

Raulo, who praised LWF workers for their patience in a difficult situation, said the problems in Gressier have to be seen in context –  in a situation that can seem like it is bereft of hope. “People are traumatized,” she said, “and we know how people can react in these types of situations.”

Still, she said, one unassailable fact has emerged in the last three weeks, particularly given a history of weak state structures. “Haitians are an extremely resilient people.”

Church World Service's Chris Herlinger is reporting from Haiti on behalf of the CWS-supported ACT Alliance. ACT Alliance 

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