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Field Diary from Haiti

© UN Photo/Logan Abassi
14 January. 2010: Wounded people lie in a make shift shelter in the parking lot of the general hospital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti on Tuesday January 12.

By Tamar Hahn

Port au Prince, 17 January - This morning I went to visit a field hospital set up at the MINUSTAH Logistical Base (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti). The hospital consists of two giant tents filled to the brim with Haitians wounded during the earthquake. Conditions are deplorable: little food and water for both doctors and patients, no sanitation which means that urine and feces are being disposed of behind the hospital tents and amputated limbs end 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 and it is doing mainly amputations as the crash wounds suffered by many of the victims here have become infected and life threatening. There is no capacity to perform any other surgery and all supplies are limited.

Amidst the cacophony of whimpers and cries of pain five children lie in their cots alone, with no relative to feed them, clean them or hold their hand. 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, a piece of paper at her feet says Baby Girl, or where to begin looking for her family. 

The same is true for Sean, a seven-year-old boy who came in and screamed for his parents crouched in a fetal position for 12 hours. From what little he has said since the nurses summarized that he saw them both dead. Sean has minor scratches and 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, either in hospitals or roaming the streets with no access to water, food and protection from violence and abuse. Even if these children have not been physically wounded they have suffered major psychological trauma which will 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 Paul and Baby Girl. The shelters will provide a safe heaven 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. 

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

Water being distributed

During the afternoon I went out with our Water and Sanitation officer to evaluate the water distribution efforts which began yesterday. 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 piece of cloth they have available. They crowd the few squares in the city and even the prime minister’s house, a gated property with a big front yard which has now become an impromptu camp. 

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

There are no latrines and I saw women kneeling in front of water pales, naked in the street, to wash themselves. With no latrines available people take care of their bodily needs on the sidewalk. Mounds of garbage are accumulating everywhere and when night descends on Port of Prince all of these thousands of people crowded one on top of the other are in complete darkness.

When we came to the prime minister’s residence a collapsible water tank was providing 5,000 liters of water, which cover the daily needs of 1,000 people. The line was orderly and people were patiently waiting their turn, jerry cans in hand. Right behind them a long line had formed to collect the 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. Then Stania, a 17-year-old girl 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.”

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 affects every single 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 MINUSTAH 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.

For more information
Tamar Hahn, thahan@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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