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As food distribution improves, Haitians want U.S to 'take over'

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- International relief organizations backed by American soldiers delivered hundreds of tons of rice to homeless residents of the Haitian capital Sunday, laboring to ease a food shortage that has left countless thousands struggling to find enough to eat.

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But even as food-aid workers enjoyed their most successful day since the Jan. 12 earthquake, the increasingly prominent role of U.S. troops and civilians in the capital is creating high expectations that the Obama administration is struggling to contain.

The needs are extraordinary, and the common refrain is that the Americans will provide.

"I want the Americans to take over the country. The Haitian government can't do anything for us," said Jean-Louis Geffrard, a laborer who lives under a tarp in the crowded square. "When we tell the government we're hungry, the government says, 'We're hungry, too.' "

Added Canga Matthieu, a medical student whose school was destroyed: "The American government should take care of us."

"They're well organized. The United States is the richest country in the world, and they can help."

But help has its limits, U.S. officials emphasize in their public statements and in their interactions with Haitians. "You will have a friend and partner in the United States of America today and going forward," President Obama said the day after the earthquake. But U.S. officials here make it clear that the American government is not responsible for rebuilding the ravaged country.

"The military forces . . . are not here to do any reconstruction. That is not our mission," said Col. Rick Kaiser, a U.S. Army engineer overseeing emergency repairs to the Port-au-Prince docks, the electrical and water systems, and other battered infrastructure in the hemisphere's poorest country.

Administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, describe virtually every activity here as "Haiti-led," although the government is barely functioning and its record was checkered even before the earthquake killed more than 110,000 people and leveled an array of government ministries.

Louis Lucke, the senior U.S. Agency for International Development official in Haiti, stood in an American-run medical complex Saturday with President René Préval and told reporters that "the Haitians are leading the process in all the areas that are necessary" -- including food distribution, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

U.S. officials are doing what they can to bolster the stature of Préval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and to promote international assistance efforts for the more-daunting work that lies ahead. In the meantime, they are deploying personnel to support projects from food delivery to the erection of a temporary hospital near Port-au-Prince.

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Jacot, an Army engineer, drove to a critical power station in the Delmas neighborhood Sunday morning to assess repairs made by Haitian and Dominican workers.

Markestre Theolien, a supervisor with Haiti Electricity, the national utility, lamented the condition of the 27-year-old transformers and asked for new ones. Asked where the help should come from, he smiled and said, "U.S.A."

"So they're expecting us to take over?" Jacot asked a translator. "No, no, no. How can we assist without completely rebuilding? We're not here to rebuild."

The discussion went back and forth cordially. Jacot said he would be talking with the utility's director to learn what was needed. Theolien defined his bottom line: "What we really want is the United States to rebuild it, to modernize."

U.S. soldiers, whose numbers within Haiti have risen to 6,500, played a central role in Sunday's food distributions, working alongside U.N. peacekeepers to prevent the pushing, shoving and occasional melees that have severely hampered deliveries. Where U.S. troops have been present in recent days, relief workers say, deliveries have gone smoothly.

By day's end, the U.N. World Food Program calculated that roughly 400 metric tons of rice had been delivered to nine sites. Five more locations will be running early in the week, a spokesman said, but increased gang violence in the Cité Soleil slums made deliveries too risky.

The generally smooth deliveries on Sunday, based on a new system of ration cards, were met with pleasure at the Place du Canape Vert, an impromptu settlement where several hundred families received large sacks marked "Product of USA" or "USA Best Rice." Yet some asked when there would be something more than rice, while others wanted to know why they were left out.

Deliveries will resume Monday as the World Food Program, bolstered by an $80 million U.S. contribution, seeks to reach 2 million people in the next two weeks. The agency hopes the system will lead to distribution of other badly needed food and relief supplies.

At the ramshackle encampment, some residents were boiling water for rice within an hour of the delivery. Some had beans or root vegetables to add, and a few had meat. Those who could afford neither complained that rice alone would not be enough.

"It's there, but we can do nothing with it. We only got rice. No oil, nothing. And it's not easy to find water," said Flore Laurent, who is eight months pregnant. But she had nothing but praise for the role of the American soldiers. "I vote for the help of the U.S., 100 percent."

A throng of people in the square discussed their lack of faith in Haitian authorities. One after another, they said their only hope is the United States.

"The Haitian government has been here for a while, and they give us nothing. The United States should take over the country," said Andrelita Laguerre, shepherding four children and a grandchild at the camp. "Most of my friends expect the United States to take over. I wish!"


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