Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Haiti Worse than Iraq

(Photo by John Carroll)

War Zone? Worse: Haiti Lies in Utter Ruin, Soldiers Say

For soldiers of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the similarities between Haiti's capital and the major cities of Iraq are striking.

Litter and rubble line smelly streets in neighborhoods with tall metal gates and houses built almost exclusively of concrete.

Only here, the soldiers see far more destruction, devastation and suffering.

"I've been to over 30 countries, and I've never seen anything like this." said Maj. Richard Ojeda, a 2nd Brigade Combat Team officer.

Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade began arriving in Haiti shortly after last month's devastating earthquake. Many of them also have served two tours in the war in Iraq.

Like Ojeda, many of the soldiers said they were shocked by Haiti's devastation.

The earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people, injured about 300,000 more and destroyed or severely damaged a quarter of a million homes.

Despite the relief efforts, downtown Port-au-Prince remains littered with the rubble from flattened houses and businesses.

Other buildings lean precariously, as if a strong sneeze could topple them. In many places, the stench of death has faded, replaced by the odor of urine.

People who chose not to flee to one of the giant tent villages around the city now live in the streets and alleys.

Dieudonne Alexandre flew from Florida after the quake and found her family in one of those filthy alleys. Her mother, three sisters and a niece and nephew died in the earthquake. The rest of the family lives beneath a blue tarp. Their one mattress is less than 10 yards from spots on the ground they and their neighbors use as toilets.

Alexandre has been sleeping outside with them while trying to get visas that would allow some of her family to enter the United States. Her first request was denied.

"They don't have no water. They don't have no food to eat. They don't have nothing," Alexandre said. "We live in hell."

Thousands treated

About 3,200 2nd Brigade soldiers -- along with a few hundred other Fort Bragg troops -- are part of the U.S. government's ongoing efforts to help Haiti rebound.

Arriving days after the earthquake, soldiers worked to save lives. Medics dealt with severed limbs, infected gashes and broken bones. Infantrymen delivered food and water to desperate survivors. Routes were cleared to allow evacuees to safely make it to the airport and to allow aid to go to the hardest-hit areas.

Members of the 2nd Brigade have treated 9,800 patients and helped distribute about half a million bottles of water, a million meals and 12 million pounds of bulk food, a spokesman for the brigade said in an e-mail.

The 2nd Brigade was prepared for the mission. As the nation's global response force ready to deploy at a moment's notice, the brigade had run multiple-day practice drills for emergencies that would require their assistance.

That advance preparation is slowly paying off. Amid Haiti's filth and destruction lie signs of progress.

Street markets have returned. Women fry flour and plantains to peddle on the sidewalks. Others hawk bottles of soda and rum. Lottery shops have reopened. And the rubble, for the most part, has been cleared from the streets, pushed onto the sidewalks to allow traffic to pass.

Focus on food

For the past two weeks, soldiers have focused mainly on helping the World Food Program's food surge. With the search-and-rescue mission declared over, rubble removal came to a temporary halt in favor of rice distribution.

The U.N.'s plan for the rice handouts, which are coming to a close -- was to provide at least 2 million people with enough rice to last two weeks.

Looters and scammers selling tickets on the street hampered the process. But Shannon Oliver of Catholic Relief Services and other aid workers say the food distribution would have been little more than a series of riots without the military's presence.

Soldiers are quick to point out that they aren't in charge here: The Haitian government and international aid groups have that responsibility.

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