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Haiti: Red Cross volunteers provide a lifeline to the sick and wounded in shanty towns

01-05-2009 Feature

The work of Haitian Red Cross volunteers is dangerous and stressful as they evacuate the sick and wounded from the slums of Port-au-Prince and discuss life and death decisions with gang leaders.

Within seconds of the call coming through on his radio, 23-year-old Jude Celloge has told his team of Red Cross volunteers to be ready to evacuate a man and a woman to the MSF clinic.

Adrenalin racing, the volunteers pile into the Red Cross ambulance, its siren blaring as it screeches down the steep streets of Martissant, a shanty town in the south of Port-au-Prince considered the most violent area in the capital.

Jude and two other volunteers disappear into the narrow streets, where the houses are squeezed so close together that people can only walk past in single file. Shouts go up to let the Red Cross through as the volunteers bring out the patients on a stretcher.

   
  ©ICRC/VII/ Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00350    
 
  Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross volunteer, Jude Celloge, responding to a call.    
     

As the ambulance races towards the MSF emergency clinic, the heavy traffic and colourful tap tap taxis move respectfully aside. Ten minutes later, the ambulance delivers its two patients to the clinic, where the woman will be treated for internal bleeding and the man for severe stomach problems.

Since the Red Cross ambulance service began at the end of March 2008, volunteers have evacuated nearly a thousand patients. Most of them were women about to give birth or people with chronic illnesses.

But sometimes the patients are victims of gang violence.

“In the run-up to Christmas we dealt with 97 stabbings and shootings,” says Jude. “That’s when the gangs are looking to make money and the violence escalates.”

In March 2007, the UN launched a major military offensive in Martissant and the capital’s other notorious shanty town, Cité Soleil. The operation resulted in the death or arrest of key gang leaders, and violence decreased dramatically. However, the ICRC continues to talk to the remaining gang members to ensure that they respect the neutrality and impartiality of the Red Cross emblem.

The gangs are most active in Martissant, particularly in the adjacent districts of Tibois and Grand Ravine. Here, the ICRC spent time contacting known gang members an d community leaders before it set up the ambulance service.

Nevertheless, the work can be highly risky and stressful.

 

 
  ©CICR/VII/ Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00353    
 
  Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross volunteers about to transfer a sick woman to a clinic.    
     

“Sometimes, after a shoot-out, two gangs call us out to go and pick up their injured and I have to decide where to send the ambulance first,” says Celloge, emphasizing that it is always the most serious cases that get priority.

All of the 80 volunteers come from Martissant and know the dangers of the job. They get paid 300 gourdes “danger money” a day (about 7 US dollars), but apart from Celloge most are part time and work only a few shifts a month.

Their biggest reward comes from knowing that they are making a difference to people’s lives.

 

“Before, it could take a heavily pregnant woman two hours to get to the MSF clinic, but now she only has to dial 118 and she can get a free ride, accompanied by our volunteers trained in advanced first aid and stabilization techniques,” says Celloge.

With no State ambulances anywhere in Haiti, the poor rely on services run by organizations like the Red Cross and MSF. In Martissant, MSF has two ambulances for emergency cases, but the demand is so high that they would like the Red Cross to have two as well.

But funds are limited. The Red Cross started picking up the wounded when violence peaked at the end of 2004. Since then, they have evacuated thousands of people in Cité Soleil using tap taps fitted out as ambulances and marked with the Red Cross emblem. Plans are afoot for the local branch to get its own ambulance later this year.

The volunteers speak with pride about their work and how they are motivated by their desire to help their community. But commitment can come at a price.

   
  ©ICRC/VII/ Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00351    
 
  Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross volunteers taking a sick man to a clinic.    
     

Jean Guerlain (25) was one of the first Red Cross volunteers to work in Cité Soleil. In July 2006, he was shot in the mouth as he left the Red Cross branch office to meet a member of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Although bleeding profusely, he managed to drag the UN officer to safety before losing consciousness.

Today, after undergoing six major operations, he is paralysed down one side of his face and speaks with great difficulty. But despite constant pain and the stigma of his severe facial deformities, he still helps to evacuate the sick from Cité Soleil.

His work is much less dangerous than when he was shot, but he fears that the violent times could come again.

“People are angry and discontented. They have little to eat and nothing to do,” he says, adding that the politicians have always used the poor in the capital’s shanty towns to stir up discontent for their own political ends. He concludes: “I fear there will always be work for the Red Cross here in Cité Soleil and Martissant.”