US troops struggle to build trust as aid starts to arrive
Food and medicine are getting through but fuel still scarce
Published 19/01/2010 | 05:00
THEY COME to help, not to invade. That is the mantra being repeated by US soldiers who have finally started being seen in the centre of Port-au-Prince, distributing food, medicine and water in the country that was shaken to its foundations by an earthquake a week ago.
Troops unloading cargo at the airport yesterday knew their presence carried a mixed message to Haitians, who were occupied by the American Marines from 1915 to 1934, and had suffered under a string of dubious US-backed governments during the modern era. Hugo Chavez has already attempted to stoke public hostility to them, accusing Washington of invading Haiti in the name of aid.
So members of the 82nd Airborne Division, who are among the 1,700 US soldiers now on the ground in Haiti, revealed their new rules of engagement. They hope to win the hearts and minds of the shattered people they have travelled here to help.
Gone are the angry scowls and wrap-around sunglasses; instead, they are all smiles. And rather than waving machine guns, they have been ordered to discreetly carry their weapons on their backs. A total of 10,000 soldiers will be here by tomorrow, and if Uncle Sam is not handing out the Hershey bars quite yet, they're certainly in the post.
"We are very aware of how important the way we present ourselves is, and putting guns behind us is an important step we can take without compromising security," said Sgt Ryan McGee, who had travelled from his base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"People are doing very well in tough circumstances. They are showing us a lot of support. There's been cheering, with people shouting 'USA number one!' so we feel welcomed.''
In central Port-au-Prince, aid is finally starting to arrive. Water trucks are an increasingly common sight, though they still attract large crowds. Incoming food and medicine is passing through four major UN distribution centres, and about 20 smaller sites run by aid agencies. Food is readily available on the open market, and a vast influx of fresh fruit and vegetables arrived from the countryside yesterday morning. Also reopening were the city's bakeries.
The death toll is estimated to be anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000, but the dead bodies are starting to be cleared up And in places, rebuilding has even started.
Normality is still months away, however. To buy produce, you must have money. Since most victims were on the breadline even before their homes came crashing down, hundreds of thousands of people remain hungry. Vast crowds are at government offices, foreign embassies and all surviving businesses in a desperate search for employment.
The most serious shortage, in the long term, may be fuel. Only a handful of petrol stations are still open. Prices have increased to $14 (€9.70) for a gallon of diesel, and most major charities say that the critical shortage of fuel is hindering relief efforts.
Meanwhile, search-and-rescue efforts continue, but after almost a week under rubble the chances of people still being alive drop with every hour. On the site of the Caribe Supermarket, once Haiti's biggest, 60 people are thought to be stuck beneath the debris, surviving on bottled water from the store's shelves.
Sixteen bodies and four survivors have so far been hauled out. A team of US rescue workers was attempting to retrieve the others yesterday, but by lunchtime had found nothing but corpses.
US coastguards say a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, will arrive at Port-au-Prince harbour tomorrow, and a sonar team went into the city's port last night to clear a safe passage through the fallen cranes and debris that have until now prevented larger vessels arriving. i
There are signs that Haiti's airport is also starting to clear. Pallets of rice, dried milk, bottled water, tinned food, medicine, and even Kellogg's Frosties were arriving, to be transported by truck into town. The tiny landing strip is able to support 90 landings a day.(© Independent News Service)