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Haitians show fortitude in face of disaster

A Haitian man sits on the rubble that was his house in Jacmel (20 January 2010)
There is no longer a major search-and-rescue effort in the town of Jacmel

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Jacmel

The remote mountain road to Jacmel took us past landslides, around boulders to the southern-most edge of the island.

They had told us the route was impassable, but we made it in three hours. No aid has come this way. Only the rugged vehicles can get through.

When I got here she had been sitting here for days because there was no surgeon available. Her arm had gone black. It was too late to save it
Ted Alexander
Orthopaedic surgeon

Jacmel, a former colonial coffee town, is desperate for help. Perhaps one in three buildings in the old town now lies in ruins - more than 100 years of history, shattered in a few catastrophic seconds.

At the Saint Michele hospital the patients are lying in the garden, baking in the heat, without enough doctors to help.

The hospital buildings are too unstable to use.

In the operating theatre, nurses swat flies as the surgeons do what they can. Outside, the injured scream for painkillers.

'Emotional experience'

On the day we visited, an expeditionary team of Canadian doctors had just arrived to lend a hand. But with only basic supplies, they could only perform what resembled battlefield triage.

A child grimaces while French doctors work on cleaning a foot wound in Jacmel (20 January 2010)
The aid operation is finally beginning to reach the more remote parts of Haiti

Ted Alexander, an orthopaedic surgeon from Washington DC, was almost in tears when we interviewed him.

He has been forced to remove limbs he knows he might have saved.

One patient, Marie Laurie, was trapped by falling masonry and has lost her arm beneath the shoulder.

"When I got here she had been sitting here for days because there was no surgeon available. Her arm had gone black. It was too late to save it," Dr Alexander said.

"It has been such an emotional experience for us all," he added. "I guess I am getting kind of tired... but, there's no place I would rather be. This is where it is happening. This is what you've got to do."

Grateful

There is no longer a major search-and-rescue effort in Jacmel.

The Colombians who were here have long gone. It is the smell that signposts the dead.

A woman sits with her baby in a camp in Jacmel (21 January 2010)
Ninety percent of the people in Jacmel are living out in the open

Romarie has already buried her sister - but somewhere beneath a pile of stinking rubble is her two-year-old niece.

"We have not seen anyone here, no-one has come to help us," she says. "We are on our own."

But then she thanked us for coming. She seemed genuinely pleased that the world might be interested.

I could not help but wonder why she was so grateful, because help has not come fast enough here.

Extraordinary fortitude

In the past few days, a Canadian team has at last opened up a tiny airfield, a vital second front in the relief operation.

They promise rapid response. To be honest, I don't know why it hasn't been done
Hazem el-Zein
World Food Programme

The need is great. The football stadium is a sea of plastic sheeting home to some 6,000 people and growing. Ninety percent of the people in Jacmel are living out in the open, too afraid to sleep indoors.

And yet, despite the fact they are surviving in sweltering conditions, they show some extraordinary fortitude.

But then they have experienced disaster before. Two years ago, this town was hit by an enormous hurricane, from which they had barely recovered.

The UN World Food Programme was distributing basic supplies here within 24 hours of the disaster. They are now feeding 14,000 people and are very well organised.

They can provide rice and beans for people to cook for themselves. They have divided the people into teams, each of them responsible for their own cooking. They choose the cooks, someone to set the fires and someone to serve the rice.

A Haitian woman cooks at a camp for displaced people in Jacmel (20 January 2010)
The people of Jacmel experienced another natural disaster in 2008

But the logistics of moving everything into this town by air for the moment prevents them from doing much more.

Hazem el-Zein, the head of the south-east division for the WFP, is working flat out and like everyone else he is frustrated.

I asked him why, after 10 days, the UN had still not mobilised diggers to clear the mountain road and open up the south-eastern corner of Haiti. It would not be a big job.

"We ask the same questions to the people in charge," he responded.

"They promise rapid response. To be honest, I don't know why it hasn't been done. I can only think that their priority must be somewhere else."

We left Jacmel on the US Black Hawk helicopters now flying aid on repeated shuttles from Port-au-Prince. For this town, they are at least a lifeline.

But on the way home - barely a 10-minute journey to the capital - we crossed miles of the most remote and mountainous terrain.

How many other people did we fly over who are still cut off without any help at all?



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