|Surrounded by children, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow listens to an elderly woman describe the destruction of her house in Gonaïves, Haiti, during one of the successive hurricanes and tropical storms that hit the country.|
By Elizabeth Kiem
GONAÏVES, Haiti, 22 September 2008 – Looking down from helicopter at the devastation wrought by a month of hurricanes and catastrophic flooding, actress Mia Farrow made an immediate comparison.
“I thought of the tsunami and those terrible images,” said the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, referring to the Indian Ocean disaster almost four years ago.
Touring the city by truck from the United Nations on-site emergency coordination centre, Ms. Farrow visited shelters housing thousands of people who were still recovering from a 2004 hurricane when last month’s chain of storms and rain again rendered their homes uninhabitable.
Without the basic infrastructure in place to deal with a massive amount of mud and polluted floodwaters, Gonaïves – a city of 350,000 – is literally stuck.
“All over town, it’s like a big ‘SOS’,” said Ms. Farrow. “People around the world responded so generously to the tsunami, and I’m wondering why we haven’t responded as generously to the Haitian disaster, especially with Haiti one hour from our shores [in the United States]. This is happening right in our own backyard.”
|A boy walks at dawn through a flooded street in the storm-damaged city of Gonaïves.|
A demand for greater urgency
Accompanying Ms. Farrow on her visit was the President of UNICEF Canada, Nigel Fisher. As a UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNICEF Regional Director prior to joining the Canadian national committee, Mr. Fisher has headed up emergency responses in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places.
“What I see is much less activity here. People with almost nothing are getting very little help,” said Mr. Fisher. “In the whole day in Gonaïves, we didn’t see one pump. We didn’t see any heavy equipment to move the dirt and the mud. So the people are pretty much on their own.”
To date, UNICEF and other humanitarian aid groups have delivered over 1,000 metric tonnes of food and non-food supplies to Gonaïves. UNICEF and its partners are also working to help find secure shelter for families in need. But only a small fraction of the funding requested from a UN flash appeal for Haiti has been pledged.
For Gonaïves, the road to recovery is long, and the end is hardly in sight.
“What we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg of decades of chronic decline and increased poverty,” said Mr. Fisher. “The people here are condemned by both internal neglect and international indifference.”
|UNICEF workers load packets of locally purchased bottled water onto containers in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, for delivery by Canadian military vessels to flood victims in remote areas.|
Schools bear the brunt
The task at hand is particularly urgent as the government struggles to meet an already delayed start date for the school year, which is now scheduled to begin on 6 October. With nearly all of the schools in the disaster zones currently being used as shelters, however, that will mean relocating thousands of families and intensively rehabilitating school structures to make them safe and sanitary for students.
Even in the best circumstances, education is one of Haiti’s weakest links. About 67 per cent or school-age children are registered, but far fewer attend. Only 2 per cent finish their secondary education.
Even before the storms, many families were constrained from sending their children to school because of tuition costs and other school fees. Rising food prices, too, have wiped out money put aside for schooling.
Orphans of the storm
At an orphanage in Gonaïves, Ms. Farrow and Mr. Fisher visited 25 children who were safe and clean after the storm, but were cramped into the second story of their school while the first floor remained under several inches of water.
The orphanage director pointed to the children’s latrines, which were accessible only by tramping through deep, putrid mud. “Please help us,” he said.
Meanwhile, one of the youngest children in the facility had a different request.
“One little boy said, ‘Stay with us, I don’t want you to go,’” recalled Ms. Farrow. “He said, ‘I will pray for you.’ And I was thinking, if anyone needed prayers and help now, it’s…these orphans on the second floor.
“Those are the most abandoned of an abandoned population,” she concluded, shaking her head sadly. “And he said he would pray for me.”