March 2, 2006

Haiti’s poor suffer as world looks elsewhere

By Jim Loney

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - The scars on the
shoulder, neck and chin of little Laurencia Dieudonne are a
constant reminder of the frightening night when bullets pierced
the thin walls of her shanty-home in Haiti's Cite Soleil slum.

The sounds of gunfire on that day 14 months ago -- probably
another fight between slum gangs and U.N. peacekeepers --
chased now 5-year-old Laurencia and her mother, Guilene Jean,
under the bed.

But the walls of the rickety home, fashioned from rusted
sheets of iron, offered little protection. Laurencia, a tiny
child with an engaging smile and braided hair, was shot three
times and became another forgotten victim of Haiti's immutable
violence and poverty.

"She doesn't talk about it. But when people ask about the
scars, she just says, 'I got shot,"' said Guilene, who at 26 is

pregnant with her third child.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is one of the
world's forgotten crises -- overshadowed by the Asian tsunami
that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Hurricane Katrina
which swamped one of America's best known cities and a host of
other global disasters.

The average Haitian lives on less than $2 a day. The poor
have stripped the land of trees for cooking charcoal. This has
added catastrophic soil erosion to a long list of woes as the
unstable Caribbean nation takes another stab at democracy after
last month's presidential election, which followed decades of
dictatorship, coups and turmoil.

Just under 50 percent of Haitians cannot read, more than
two-thirds are unemployed, over half are malnourished.

Yet aside from the moments when its political upheavals
make news, Haiti is a simmering crisis, not splashy enough to
force the world to care, according to foreign aid groups
working here.

"It's not spectacular. Sometimes, countries are not
interesting," said Loris De Filippi, head of the Medecins Sans
Frontieres mission in Haiti. "But when you have 48 years of
life expectancy, and infant mortality rates are catastrophic,
this is an ongoing disaster."


Last year MSF revived the St. Catherine Laboure Hospital in
Cite Soleil, a squalid, violent shantytown on the northern edge
of Port-au-Prince.

In an inconspicuous walled compound abandoned by Haiti's
authorities a year earlier, the group restored health care to a
slum that had none. Doctors say they are seeing people in their
50s who have never had medical care before.

With 70 beds and an operating room, the volunteer doctors
and nurses treat bruises, cuts, pregnancies, cancer, diabetes
and in recent months, more than 200 gunshot victims, many
caught in the cross-fire between slum gangs and U.N. troops.

Doctors say the use of high-powered weapons in Cite
Soleil's cramped maze of concrete and iron shacks produce
astonishing wounds among the slum's innocent bystanders.

"The speed of the bullets is very high and the damage is
awful, terrible," said Dr. Carlo Belloni of Padua, Italy, who
calls conditions in the slum "unbelievable."

"I have never seen anything like this. Nothing is working
here. Everything is destroyed."

One night in January, gunshots ripped into the metal blinds
of the hospital's pediatric ward, which is now protected by a
wall of stacked steel drums filled with rocks and concrete.
Bullet holes pock the doors of two small rooms where doctors
used to take naps. Sleeping is no longer allowed there.


When a rebellion by a ragtag band of armed gangs and former
Haitian army troops sent President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into
exile two years ago, foreign nations pledged $1.3 billion to
rebuild Haiti. The United Nations says about 45 to 50 percent
of the money has been disbursed.

"Disbursed means the contracts have been signed. That
doesn't mean the money has actually arrived," said Carine
Roenen, country director for Dublin-based Concern Worldwide,
which has a yearly budget of about 4 million euros ($4.8
million) for Haiti.

Shortly after the post-rebellion burst of goodwill toward
Haiti, the tsunami struck Asia, Katrina hit New Orleans and
Pakistan was crushed by an earthquake. Haiti was shoved to a
back-burner again.

"We saw donations drop by about 30 percent after the
tsunami," said Susie Krabacher, an American whose Mercy and
Sharing Foundation runs three orphanages and six feeding
programs in Haiti.

Aid organizations in Haiti face uphill battles against
corruption and feeble government institutions, which slow and
sometimes halt the flow of foreign money to badly needed
projects supplying food, clean water and infrastructure.

"They virtually have no public administration. There has
been a huge, huge brain drain," said Roenen. "Nobody wants to
work for the government anymore because it is so weak."

Aid groups are hoping the February 7 election of Rene
Preval, an agronomist who served as president from 1996 to
2001, will stabilize Haiti in the eyes of the world and provide
a platform to help the poor masses.

"People are interested in Haiti in a negative sense, like
when we have to stop drugs from flowing through the country or
we have to stop people from getting on boats," Roenen said.


Guilene Jean says Laurencia's father was shot to death on
his way home from work on the same day the girl was wounded.

Laurencia has had no follow-up care since her gunshot
wounds healed, and psychological counseling is unheard of in
Haiti. She often complains that her neck aches and rarely goes
a few weeks without getting sick.

Their shanty sits on the edge of a fetid pond whose surface
is tinged with an oily residue and a greenish scum. Pigs root
through the tons of rotting trash that form its banks.

Jean said she would like to flee this place. Bullets often
whiz over her leaky roof. But escape doesn't seem possible.

"I don't have any money to go anywhere else," she said.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva)