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Haitians' despair deepens amid wait for aid

Peruvian UN peacekeepers try to keep back a crowd of people waiting for aid (20 January 2010)
International organisations are facing immense logistical difficulties in Haiti

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Port-au-Prince

Carlos scales the wall, and checks back to see that I'm keeping up.

There is a small gap to jump, then onto a flat concrete roof where a man sits in an armchair.

"Bonjour," I mumble as I walk through his living room.

We trample over the rubble, the roof slates cracking sharply under foot, concrete blocks wobbling precariously as our weight shifts on them.

Unless the situation changes, Haiti's crisis will deepen, and many more will die

A man stops us, and points up an alley at his home - a mangled heap of bricks and slabs and metal. The contorted iron banisters from his staircase sit atop it all.

Smoke from the morning fires begins to fill the nostrils, masking the smell of the dead. It filters the rising sun.

A golden glow covers this little fold in the hills of Port-au-Prince, as survivors pick through their homes.

There is a woman salvaging a plastic washbowl. Up a bit, in front of several demolished homes, two men stare at the ground, looking for anything of use. Elsewhere, a child stands and stares, a bandage over her right eye.

And from everyone, that question that haunts and taunts the conscience: "What can you do?"

'Help needed'

Down a lane, the wreckage of the village church hanging over them, a group of people with buckets patiently wait to get water.

Men try to break through the remains of a collapsed building (19 January 2010)
It is impossible to see how Haiti can recover from this earthquake

They have managed to uncover a plastic pipe protruding from beneath the broken tarmac of the road - the first fresh drinking water to flow here in a week. Within a few minutes the flow stops.

On the telegraph pole that rises next to them is a makeshift sign that says: "Help needed. Water, food, medicine."

There are too many of these signs in Port-au-Prince - and too many people who are waiting for someone to do what they say.

One week on, it is impossible to see how Haiti can recover from this earthquake.

The fund-raising effort around the world has been truly incredible.

In the middle of one of the worst recessions in living memory, people have been giving money as perhaps never before.

That money, though, is mostly sitting on the tarmac at the capital's airport at the moment - it is not getting to the people in need.

Abandoned rice

This is in part because of the immense logistical difficulties facing the aid organisations.

Communications are very, very difficult. Co-ordinating who gets help and when is made all the more difficult because of what was an already poor infrastructure.

They treat us like dogs. Why don't they feed us like humans?
Haitian earthquake survivor

There are also rumours of disagreements between the United States and the United Nations over who is in charge.

On the ground, though, it seems that more should be possible.

In every single one of the makeshift camps I visited, large and small, people asked where the help was.

The UN World Food Programme says that one of the big problems of distributing aid is the risk of riots.

There have been some chaotic scenes when UN staff have tried to hand out food, but I have never felt at risk.

It may, however, explain why outside a camp the other day some sacks of rice were left in the middle of the night.

There is no knowing who left the food there, but the homeless people living in the camp say it was an aid organisation, that the food was dumped in the road, and that by the time the people found it much of the rice had spilt across the road itself.

"They treat us like dogs," one man said. "Why don't they feed us like humans?"

Scant evidence

It is an obvious question. Surely with the thousands of peacekeepers here, if the fear really is that the situation really could get out of control, the UN could cordon off an area of each camp, bring in food and water and carefully and safely hand it out?

US soldiers unload aid from a helicopter
In a bid to speed up aid deliveries, US troops have stepped up their presence

Surely the aid agencies could work with the UN and the US to do the same?

Surely US troops - of which there are thousands on the ground already (though it has been hard to see any at all in Port-au-Prince itself so far, apart from those that fly overhead) - could also help secure areas so that crowd control is easier?

But these things are not happening, and the people of Haiti cannot understand why.

I have seen some tents that clearly have come from outside, and which now are sheltering the homeless, but only a tiny number.

In the meantime, more than a million people are living out in the open, under a sheet, or a rectangle of tarpaulin.

The question that urgently needs answering, is why is it taking so long?

Because unless the situation changes, Haiti's crisis will deepen, and many more will die.



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