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Leogane: Haiti's 'neglected' quake-hit town

A woman stands in front of her destroyed house in Leogane. Photo: 11 February 2010
In Leogane, 90% of the buildings were destroyed by the earthquake

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Leogane, Haiti

The mountain of rock that dominates the main square in Leogane was once a cathedral.

It surrounds an altar that is still intact. Next door stand the remains of the funeral home decorated with brightly coloured washing. The line is tied between two broken pillars. A snapshot of normality where life is anything but.

At the epicentre of the Haitian earthquake, 90% of the buildings are destroyed, a quarter of the town's population is dead or missing. And those who escaped are still fighting to survive.

"It is still working too slowly," says Mayor Santos Alexis.

Mayor Santos Alexis
Mayor Santos Alexis says Leogane has been neglected by aid agencies

"Leogane has been neglected. They can't even feed the people in Port-au-Prince - what hope is there for us.

"We tell them [aid agencies] what they need. But then co-ordinating staff rotate, and we have to explain it again. We need control on the ground. We know who needs feeding, where the priorities lie, but at the moment my hands are tied," the mayor says.

No tents

The truly striking thing about the past month is how much Haitians have helped themselves.

In Leogane, there are three camps with thousands of new homes built from salvaged wood and sheet metal.

There is debate on whether, in the short to medium term, these shanty towns are a good thing for Haiti. Most would say they are not - but the people say they are the only place where they have a chance of receiving the food and water they need.

No-one is distributing supplies to those families who have stayed by their homes.

In the football stadium, there is no sign of the tents or tarpaulins they need.

Rosmata Tevel and her family
Rosmata Tevel and her family are living under bed sheets

Rosmata Tevel and her nine children are living beneath bed sheets in 10 sq m (108 sq ft), with one bed and on borrowed rice from her neighbours. They can't afford the corrugated iron to build a shelter - it's about $7 (£4) a sheet. But they know they need to find better cover.

There's a hard deadline just round the corner.

"The rains will come in May," Mrs Tevel says. "We will be flooded in here, but I have nowhere else to take them."

In the camps it is paper coupons that are the new currency. Families hide them; soldiers guard them; the mayor would certainly like control of them.

For 2,500 women who queued for a food drop, the little scraps of paper were like diamonds. We counted at least four women who had forged them.

"This is the only way to do it," says Eberhard Hallbach, a co-coordinator with the German aid agency GTZ.

Food queue in Leogane
Paper coupons are exchanged for boxes of food

"We can't drop food without soldiers. And it has to be tightly controlled. There are so many desperate people."

First to get her box was 19-year-old Chlesland, who is seven-months pregnant. She had waited five hours in the baking sun for her food.

Her box contained flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil and beans. Welcome relief, but it will feed her family for only four days.

"We have had just two deliveries here since the earthquake," she says. "We eat when we can."

Facts on the ground speak volumes of the UN chain of command.

"We know it's not enough," says Mr Hallbach. "We do what we can.

"It is getting better. But we all have to recognise that Haiti is in a state of shock and there is colossal amounts of work to do," he adds.

'Luxury'

Four weeks on, it is still the smaller agencies like his which have formed their own alliances and are driving the operation in Leogane.

The priorities for the UN are still in Port-au-Prince, which is an hour's drive away.

But it is little comfort to Chlesland - in two months' time she will have to provide for another mouth.

Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital, Leogane
Babies are being born every day in the field hospital at Leogane

The Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital is delivering babies every day - 16 this week - to women who can barely feed themselves.

But at least they now have somewhere to go and give birth safely. And the MSF provides more than just a field hospital. They have showers and toilets, a luxury the majority of Haitians go without.

"It is true the demands are huge," says Pier Luigi Testa, MSF's emergency co-ordinator.

"But at least in health we are making some progress. In Leogane, we are moving to secondary care. This week we have had 2,000 consultations, 176 surgeries, six skin grafts, we have even provided consultations for 103 mental patients."

And in the next week they plan to build another 1,300 sq m (14,000 sq ft) of hospital for 150 new patients.

For now the major UN agencies are conspicuous by their absence.

Haitians are resilient but they can only do so much. They need all the help that's been promised and they hope that at least some shelter arrives before the rains.

For now, families do what they can but their future comes one day at a time.



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