‘There’s No War Here’: Haiti’s Crisis, From Disaster Site To Military Zone?

By Michelle Chen Jan 18, 2010

As humanitarian relief trickles into Haiti in fits and starts, reports of despair and frustration are trickling out. The situation grows increasingly desperate as hundreds of thousands of disaster-stricken people await emergency help, nearly a week after the emergency began. In some cases, the U.S. presence may actually be hampering the aid effort, according to Al Jazeera, which describes the airport as a quasi-militarized zone:

At the entrance to the city’s airport, where most aid is coming in, there is anger and frustration. Much needed supplies – water and food – are inside, and Haitians are locked out…. Beyond the well-guarded perimeter there’s something else going on. Here the U.S. has taken control; it looks more like the Green Zone in Baghdad than a center of aid distribution. Heavily armed U.S. forces patrol the entrances; even within the airport, these soldiers are never without weapons. There are several thousand on the ground already, and that number is expected to grow. America now decides who lands in Haiti, and there’s a constant stream of U.S. aircraft arriving, with thousands of U.S. boots on ground. Meanwhile, aid flights from other nations are being turned back. Two Mexican aircraft with vital lifesaving equipment were told they can’t land on Sunday. Patrick Elie, the former Haitian defense minister, is concerned with the way America has taken over relief efforts. ELIE: The choice of what lands and what doesn’t land should, you know… the priorities of the flight should be determined by the Haitians. Otherwise it’s a takeover, and what might happen is that the needs of Haitians are not taken into account — but only either the way a foreign country defines the needs of Haiti, or try to push its own agenda.

Medicins Sans Frontieres warned the United Nations and U.S. military that time was running out to deliver critical resources. MSF issued a statement on Sunday complaining that help was literally being turned away:

Despite guarantees, given by the United Nations and the US Defense Department, an MSF cargo plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was blocked from landing in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, and was re-routed to Samana, in Dominican Republic. All material from the cargo is now being sent by truck from Samana, but this has added a 24-hour delay for the arrival of the hospital. A second MSF plane is currently on its way and scheduled to land today in Port- au-Prince at around 10 am local time with additional lifesaving medical material and the rest of the equipment for the hospital. If this plane is also rerouted then the installation of the hospital will be further delayed, in a situation where thousands of wounded are still in need of life saving treatment.

Al Jazeera correspondent Teresa Bo observed:

In the absence of large scale foreign help, Haitians were trying to help each other, our correspondent said, with some turning homes into hospitals to treat the wounded and others giving away food, but food supplies and other resources were running out. People could see helicopters flying overhead, US military vehicles in the city and aeroplanes arriving at the airport with supplies, so it was difficult to understand why little aid appeared to be reaching the people, she said.

Indeed, from an outsider’s viewpoint, the disconnect between the aid and the needy can scarcely be comprehended, until maybe you realize who the White House has installed as figureheads of America’s latest military-humanitarian campaign in Haiti: The BBC’s Matthew Price reports on the gritty struggle of one isolated village outside the capital, Leogane:

But instead of being out in the village, the UN representatives at this base are clustered around the front gate, laughing as they buy shampoo from a local salesman. And while they do this, just a two-minute walk down the road in the village itself, the injured and the homeless are waiting…. They have salvaged what they can and the meagre belongings that they have left are now sitting out in the fields next to the shelters they are putting up – tents made of old sheets and, if they are lucky, some salvaged corrugated iron held fast against a tree branch.

Earthquake refugees from Haiti’s only film school, meanwhile, have hit the ground with cameras in hand. CBC reports that activists at the Ciné Institute hope to document for the rest of the world the scene of catastrophe surrounding them.

"They’re out on the streets. They’re posting reports on a website. It’s the only positive story to come out of Haiti, that these students are able to hit the ground using the skills that we taught them and they’re just rising above everything," said [Annie Nocenti], a journalist and filmmaker who was once an editor at Marvel. "They’re rising above personal problems and loss of homes to get out there and do what filmmakers do which is report," she said.

Though there are reports that the aid effort is steadily picking up pace, it can’t come soon enough for the countless homeless, sick, and hungry survivors. In stark contrast to the bleak images of chaos and disorder painted by corporate media outlets, plenty of Haitians seem to be cobbling together whatever strength they have left to do what they’ve always done throughout centuries of abandonment by the international community: surviving on their own.