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At a glance: Haiti

Field Diary: Notes from a tent hospital in Haiti

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0029/LeMoyne
A nurse cares for a child injured during the earthquake at a field hospital set up near the main airport in Port-au-Prince. The nurse is an expatriate Haitian national who returned to support recovery efforts.

By Tamar Hahn

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 17 January 2010 – This morning I went to visit a field hospital set up at the UN mission's logistical base here in Port-au-Prince. The hospital consists of two giant tents filled with Haitians wounded during the earthquake.

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Conditions are deplorable. There is little food and water for both doctors and patients, and no sanitation, which means that urine and feces are being disposed of behind the hospital tents and amputated limbs are ending up in the trash.

There is no morgue either, so bodies are piling up on the side of the tent. An operating room was set up today. It is mainly doing amputations, as the crush wounds suffered by many of the victims have become infected and life-threatening. There is no capacity to perform any other surgery, and all supplies are limited.

Children in crisis

Amidst the cacophony of whimpers and cries of pain, five children lie in their cots alone, with no relatives to feed them, clean them or hold their hands. A two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy arrived here after the earthquake dehydrated and in shock; she lies in a cot crying and alone. She has no major wounds and is ready to go home, but nobody knows her name or where to begin looking for her family. A piece of paper at her feet simply says, 'Baby Girl'.

The same is true for Sean, 7, who came in and screamed for his parents while crouching in a fetal position for 12 hours. From what little he has said since, the nurses have surmised that he saw his mother and father dead. Sean has minor scratches and now walks around talking to other patients, but the doctors are reluctant to discharge him without knowing where he will go and who will care for him.

There are potentially hundreds or even thousands of other children in the same situation in Port-au-Prince. They are either in hospitals or roaming the streets with no access to water, food or protection from violence and abuse. Even if these children have not been physically injured, they have suffered major psychological trauma that could scar them for life. They are at risk of malnutrition and disease, and vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking.

UNICEF is identifying and outfitting two shelters, which will house 200 children like Sean and Baby Girl. The shelters will provide a safe haven for the children and begin to address some of their most pressing needs while their families are being traced. For those who cannot be reunited with their families, alternative solutions will have to be found.

Water being distributed

Haitians no longer sleep in their homes. Even those whose houses were spared by the earthquake have taken to the streets and erected tents using whatever pieces of cloth they have available. They crowd the few squares in the city and even the Prime Minister’s residence, a gated property with a big front yard that has become an impromptu camp.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0031/LeMoyne
UNICEF Regional Communication Specialist Tamar Hahn on the grounds of the Haitian Prime Minister's residence, where thousands are temporarily encamped.

Those who are not in the squares and yards block off sections of the street with slabs of concrete and sleep right on the pavement.

There are no latrines, and I've seen women kneeling naked in front of water buckets, out in the open, to wash themselves. People take care of their bodily needs on the sidewalk. Mounds of garbage are accumulating everywhere, and when night descends on Port-au-Prince all of these thousands of people crowded one on top of the other are in complete darkness.

This afternoon I went out with our Water and Sanitation Officer to evaluate the water distribution efforts that began yesterday. When we came to the Prime Minister’s residence, a collapsible water tank was providing 5,000 litres of water, which cover the daily needs of 1,000 people. The line was orderly. People were patiently waiting their turn, jerry cans in hand. Right behind them, a long line had formed to collect hygiene kits being distributed by USAID.

Four little girls came by to say hello. When I asked them how they were doing they smiled and said that things were all right. A 17-year-old girl named Stania overheard them. "All right? What do you mean, all right?" she said. "This is not all right, this is terrible and we can’t stay like this much longer."

Tired and traumatized

It was good to see that aid was beginning to reach people, despite the horrid conditions in which they were living. I returned to the base where UNICEF has set up operations following the destruction of its Haiti office, only to learn that the son of one of the drivers had died from the injuries he suffered during the earthquake. It was the third child that this man, a Haitian national, had lost. His daughter and another son were instantly killed when their house collapsed.

The tragedy of the earthquake is not affecting just those outside the compound; it touches every member of UNICEF’s staff on the ground. Several staff members have lost all of their belongings and have nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Everyone is tired and traumatized, scared to be by themselves at home and edgy from the aftershocks, which can still be felt daily. The Education Officer has been camped by the ruins of the UN mission offices for five days, waiting for her husband to be dug out of the rubble. He is alive and has sent her text messages, but he has not been rescued yet.




18 January 2010: UNICEF Regional Communication Officer Tamar Hahn provides an update by phone from Port-au Prince, Haiti.
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