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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 September, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Agony piled on agony in Haiti
By Dan Griffiths
BBC correspondent in Gonaives

When I met Wishtacashta she was sitting on the hard concrete floor of the United Nations hospital in Gonaives, cradling a young child in her arms.

A four-year-old boy sleeps on a rooftop mattress in Gonaives, Haiti
Many where homeless even before Hurricane Jeanne

"This is my niece," she told me.

She said the girl had fallen ill after she was forced to spend the night out in the open when the flood waters hit the city.

She was lucky to be alive.

As for Wishtacashta herself, she had lost everything.

As I drove through the streets of Gonaives, I could see thousands of people like her - their homes destroyed, possessions spewed out onto the pavements.

Some were living on the rooftops of houses surrounded by what little they had left.

The roads were covered in a thick coat of mud and everywhere there was the smell of raw sewage.

Down the side alleys I could see people wading knee deep through water that had still not receded, several days after tropical storm Jeanne hit Haiti.

Anger and hunger

Aid is slowly getting through to Gonaives but many people have had little to eat or drink for days.

Poorest country in Western Hemisphere
80% live below absolute poverty threshold
Malnutrition widespread
Severe or moderate stunting affects 47% of under fives
*Data from UN World Food Programme

There have been angry scenes at some relief centres as large crowds gather, desperate to get hold of food and water.

At one centre, I saw hundreds of people surging towards the gates of the building trying to get inside.

UN peacekeepers, already in Haiti to assist the interim government, fired warning shots to calm the situation.

That seemed to work, but at the moment the UN is all that is stopping the anger exploding into violence.

And there are other concerns too - aid workers fear an outbreak of disease after much of the sanitation system in the city was washed away.

Full capacity

The interim Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue, told me the government had drawn up evacuation plans for parts of Gonaives, but as yet they have not been put into action.

Haitian women scramble for food in Gonaives, Haiti
The government cannot handle relief efforts alone

The UN and other aid agencies are at full stretch.

For the interim government, installed after the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide earlier this year, the crisis could not have come at a worse time.

It is a caretaker administration with little political power and even less control over events in Gonaives.

That means the relief operation is run largely by aid agencies, with the UN providing security.


It is not that the government does not want to help, it is simply that it cannot.

Until elections are held, Haiti is a country in waiting - hoping for a new government and a new start after a turbulent year.

Not only was there the violence associated with the rebellion earlier in the year but in May flash floods killed more than 2,000 people and left many homeless.

For many people this is the tragedy of Haiti - as soon as one crisis passes another one comes along
Aid agencies are still dealing with aftermath of that disaster and many people still have no permanent home.

The island is particularly vulnerable to the damage wrought by heavy rains.

Intense deforestation has stripped the hills and mountains of trees so there is nothing to hold back water and even small storms can cause major problems.

There is also the continuing insecurity caused by the collapse of the government.

The capital, Port-au-Prince, is a vibrant city with streets packed full of life - vendors on the pavements sell everything from car parts to typewriting lessons.

Litany of crises

But just underneath the surface, as in other parts of Haiti, the signs of instability are everywhere.

Days before I arrived, the prime minister's chauffeur was shot and killed.

And now much of Gonaives has been destroyed, leaving much of the north of the country in chaos.

Back at the hospital, Wishtacashta is still waiting for her niece to receive treatment.

For many people like her this is the tragedy of Haiti - as soon as one crisis passes another one comes along.

The UN says the clean-up operation in Gonaives may take several months, but with a weak government and the population of an entire city needing urgent aid, rebuilding may take many years.


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