Security fears mount in lawless post-earthquake Haiti

By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Desperate Haitians scrambled Sunday to find food and water and guarded their meager possessions against the advance of looters as the U.S. and other nations struggled to jump-start a sluggish relief effort.

Even as Navy and Coast Guard ships arrived offshore, a round-the-clock airlift intensified and additional dignitaries appeared, the frantic victims of Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake were growing more fearful as they pleaded for help and security in a lawless city.

With massive amounts of aid promised but not yet delivered because of the difficulty of operating in the crippled country, amid what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called "one of the most serious crises in decades," the living banded together outdoors without shelter, sustenance or protection.

There was widespread apprehension that, unless the pace of aid distribution quickens, there could be mass violence as hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lacking food, water and electricity begin to compete for scarce resources.

"We worry," said Laurence Acluche, a Haitian National Police officer. "We are all concerned about food."

There has already been scattered looting in recent days, but so far it has been primarily confined to damaged buildings. Still, Haiti has long lacked a robust security presence, and the earthquake has further eroded what little there had been, meaning violence could quickly escalate once it starts.

On Sunday, many merchants were afraid to open their stores for fear that they would be overrun by hungry, desperate quake victims. Even pharmacies remained shuttered.

"We need the Haitian forces to protect us," said Cledanor Sully, owner of a small Port-au-Prince hotel called the Seven Stars. Sully sleeps in a park across the street from his damaged -- but still standing -- hotel, fearful that looters will make off with mattresses and dressers. "We're all scared. We need the United Nations and we need the United States Marines."

Indeed, all over Port-au-Prince, signs begging for help from the Marines have been sprouting. In front of one crushed office building, a typical sign read: "Welcome the U.S. Marine. We need some help. Dead bodies inside." Another read: "U.S. Marines SOS. We need help."

At this point, though, it's unlikely that there will be a large U.S. military presence in Port-au-Prince. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this weekend that there will be up to 10,000 U.S. forces in Haiti and off its coast by Monday, but only a fraction of them will be on the ground.

"The bulk of them will be on ships," he said.

The troops that have been deployed to Haiti have been slow in arriving. Military officials blame delays in getting troops to Port-au-Prince in part on the city's small, overburdened airport. "It's a huge traffic issue," said Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for the military joint task force. He also said the task force's commander wants to ensure that flights with soldiers are not preempting the arrival of aid supplies.

"We're not the only country flying in here," Kirby said.

After the French group Doctors Without Borders issued a public call that its planes be allowed to land to treat the wounded, its hospital plane received clearance at about 3 p.m. Sunday. An Air Force official said the U.S. military turned away only three of the 67 civilian flights trying to arrive Saturday.

But the dearth of security forces on the ground in Port-au-Prince is actually delaying the provision of food and medical aid, some aid workers say. For instance, the Colombian Red Cross has a mobile clinic on the ground, but it can't set it up until security is arranged.

"We're negotiating with" the U.N., a Colombian government official said.

Still, some progress is being made. The U.S. 18th Airborne set up a headquarters at the airport, and the 82nd Airborne was establishing small posts around the city to protect food and water drops. The 82nd Airborne had 500 troops here as of Sunday night, and 750 more were expected Monday.

There was almost no Haitian law enforcement presence on the streets of Port-au-Prince on Sunday. For years, blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping forces have patrolled with city in armored personnel carriers and trucks. But the U.N. force is deeply unpopular, and its ability to respond to the crisis has been hampered by leadership problems. The force's acting commissioner died during the earthquake, and his replacement did not arrive for several days.

"The blue helmets, they don't do anything," said Gregoire Sancerre, a computer technology student, echoing a frequent refrain here. "If you have trouble and call them, they won't come. They are afraid of gangsters. What use are they?"

Haiti's small national police force suffered losses when a police station and prison collapsed during the quake, killing at least eight officers and eight inmates. Dozens of police uniforms were destroyed in the collapse, adding to the general sense of confusion in the streets because there are not enough uniforms for surviving officers.

The loss of the prison, in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, leaves police with fewer options to detain suspected criminals.

Even under normal circumstances, the national police are sorely outmatched. Port-au-Prince has long been plagued by violent gangs that control huge swaths of the city, including much of the notorious Cite Soleil slum.

The signs of growing strain were evident Sunday as U.N. police in riot gear pushed back crowds of Haitians massing around one of the main gates to Port-au-Prince's airport. Residents know that food supplies are being warehoused at the airport, and some have gone there, hoping for provisions -- even though no food is being distributed at the airport.

David Orr, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said his group expected to distribute high-energy biscuits to 67,000 people on Sunday after passing out 40,000 on Saturday, 25,000 on Friday and 10,000 on Thursday. Despite the increased distribution, the food situation is so dire that residents were picking through a trash bin in Port-au-Prince. Local suppliers have been sharply raising their prices, sometimes doubling the cost of items such as juice, water and rice.

Seven field hospitals have been set up in Port-au-Prince by international organizations, and three more were supposed to open Sunday, said Nicholas Reader, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian relief effort.

Port-au-Prince's overwhelmed city hospitals were dealing with a new problem on Sunday: patients who had been treated and were well enough to be released but were refusing to leave.

"They have nowhere to go," Reader said. "Their homes have been destroyed. So they are staying. So the hospitals are literally overflowing with people."

Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, made his first visit to Haiti since the earthquake and spoke briefly and emotionally to U.N. staff members coping with their own losses from the collapse of their headquarters. Patrick Hein, an injured U.N. staffer whose wife is still missing, pressed Moon "to take care of my wife." Later, in an interview, Hein criticized the organization for not doing more to find his wife and others in the rubble of a collapsed U.N. building.

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