Crowds seeking aid in Haiti met with pepper spray and rubber bullets
(TIMES ONLINE) United Nations troops used pepper spray yesterday to hold off a crowd of hungry Haitians queueing for food at a makeshift camp in the grounds of the wrecked presidential palace.
“They’re not violent, just desperate. They just want to eat,” Fernando Soares, a Brazilian army colonel, said. “The problem is, there is not enough food for everyone.”
The UN’s Brazilian troops are experienced — they have been stationed in Haiti for years — but they were struggling to hold the line. As they began deploying the pepper spray, the crowd broke up and ran back across the road coughing, eyes streaming.
Raoul Gai, 36, pulled his T-shirt over the head of Dalima, 9, his daughter, as she cried and spluttered. “They are giving food but I don’t like the way they are doing it,” he said.
Yesterday, the 14th day after the Haitian earthquake, the World Food Programme (WFP) was trying to deliver 107 cubic tonnes of rice and oil and beans to the starving of Port-au-Prince, enough to feed 20,000 people for 15 days. Two rice trucks were heading for the palace.
The queues had formed on the northern fringe of the ruins. As the food trucks came lumbering down the road, passing the city of shacks and tents, the whole camp stood up as one. Thousands of people came running out of their shelters and dashed across the road. “It’s not enough,” shouted a man as the convoy rattled past. “We are too many. Two trucks is not enough for us. They will fight, and the soldiers will shoot and fire gas.”
Recent attempts to deliver food to this camp have all descended into chaos: on Monday Uruguayan peacekeepers fired rubber bullets at the hungry masses, eventually withdrawing altogether, leaving the crowd to fight for the last sacks of rice.
The WFP trucks disappeared down an alley behind the palace, two tanks blocked the way and those at the front of the lines were given the bad news: only people on the south side of the palace would be served. So began a race around the ruins, young men streaming ahead, women and children behind, but for one sprightly woman in her sixties who managed to keep pace with the leaders. Her name was Elizabeth Sipion, 64. “My health is not so good,” she said. “I have eye problems, ear problems. But my belly is aching so I’m very fast.”
She secured a place near the front of one of the lines, but it was hard to tell which was the right line. Steel barricades ran across the alley. Behind them stood the Brazilian troops, followed by two tanks parked across the road. The trucks packed with rice were at the back of this procession.
The WFP says getting aid to the hungry in Port-au-Prince presents the greatest logistical challenge it has ever faced. Convoys have been caught for hours in traffic, there have been punctures. Once the trucks could not fit into the designated street.
“The UN staff have been working around the clock for the last 14 days,” said one WFP worker yesterday. “The only time they were not working was when they were looking for members of their family buried under rubble. They have lost their relatives, but they keep going.”
By Monday night the WFP said that it had delivered ten million meals to nearly 450,000 people. Villene Mariadine, 19, was one of the lucky recipients. Nine months pregnant, her house has been destroyed and her husband killed, and this was the first meal she had received. “I’m just so pleased to get it,” she said, walking away, a bag of rice balanced on her head.
Then the soldiers announced that the rice had run out. “There’s still food!” shouted a young man in the queue. “I can see it.”
“Go,” the soldiers said. “There is no more.” “But we are so hungry,” the crowd cried, thousands pressing behind. “We can’t stand it any more.”