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Haiti earthquake: Haitian solidarity, one month on

12-02-2010 Interview

Riccardo Conti, the ICRC's head of delegation in Haiti, witnessed the powerful earthquake that struck the island one month ago. He looks back at the first days of the emergency response, marked by incredible solidarity between the survivors, and speaks of the challenges that lie ahead.

  ©ICRC / M. Kokic    
  Riccardo Conti, head of the ICRC's Haiti delegation.    
  ©ICRC / M. Kokic / ht-e-00543    
  Dalmas 2 district, Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross Volunteers treat an injured child at the first-aid post set up by the ICRC.    
  ©ICRC / M. Kokic / ht-e-00580    
  Port-au-Prince. An ICRC employee and a Haitian Red Cross volunteer interview a woman to try reunite her with her child.    
  ©ICRC / M. Kokic / ht-e-00577    
  Port-au-Prince. ICRC staff install a water bladder at the women’s prison.    
  ©ICRC / M. Kokic / ht-e-00515    
  La Primature Park, Port-au-Prince. A girl draws water from an ICRC tapstand.    
 What struck you most in the first phase of the emergency response?  

For me, personally, it was impressive and moving to see how people came together and helped each other in the first few days after the quake, and how they continue to do so now. People showed incredible solidarity. Even when they had very little food, they shared what they had.

Furthermore, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our own Haitian staff. For several days, they were living with terrible uncertainty and loss, and yet they continued to come to work and to help keep the operations going. They deserve the highest praise.

The response of our colleagues in the Haitian Red Cross has also been remarkable. I was looking out of the window this morning, watching the young women who do the tracing getting ready to go off to work, and I thought about how much they are doing for their people. These volunteers put their hearts into the work, completely!

 How is the situation in Haiti?  

The country is still in the midst of the emergency phase. All involved in helping the survivors are working flat-out to meet their enormous needs. Everybody is contributing – the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the United Nations, many more aid agencies, and, of course, the national authorities. Good coordination between all those organizations is vital.

The provision of water is now functioning fairly well, but the lack of sanitation in urban a reas affected by the earthquake is still a major challenge. Thousands of people are living in camps, but the dire conditions mean that they are not even a medium-term option.

 What does the ICRC see as the top priorities right now?  

First aid is important, and we have been helping Haitian Red Cross volunteers to set up first-aid posts in the camps. Today there are ten of them. We were not involved in surgery during the first stages of the emergency, as other components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement were looking after this, but we quickly identified gaps in the treatment of minor injuries and in the care of injured people when they left hospital and went back to the camps. This is where the first aid-posts come into their own, for example by making it possible for people to get their dressings changed regularly.

Thousands of people have still not been able to re-establish contact with family members. Communication is particularly difficult for those living outside Port-au-Prince. So the joint ICRC/Haitian Red Cross tracing teams are focusing on reaching people in the other main towns, on unaccompanied children, and on people injured in the earthquake who have been transferred to hospitals outside the capital.

Another of our priorities is to help the Haitian authorities repair the damaged water distribution network in the impoverished suburb of Cité Soleil.

Finally, ICRC delegates have resumed visits to detainees in police stations and prisons, and we are helping the Haitian authorities repair damaged water, sanitation and electricity systems in the central prison of Port-au-Prince and to provide detainees with food and medical supplies.

 How will Haitians cope in the near future?  

Since the e arthquake, Haitians living abroad have been sending much more money to their relatives back home than they did before. That is very good news, because this money is being injected directly into the local economy. Indeed, we have to be careful not to undermine the local economy, which is gradually starting up again. Food distributions must be targeted to reach the most vulnerable people – those who not only lost their homes and belongings, but also their sources of income. Some agencies have already started " cash for work " projects, and in my opinion we need more of this, so that people can buy essential goods on local markets.

The country has suffered terribly as a result of poverty, coups d'état and cyclones, and it is always the poor who suffer most. But people here are so resilient. You only have to go down into the street to see to how people are coping, how they are helping themselves. And I think they appreciate that we know this. When I went to check up on friends to make sure they were alright after the quake, they were glad that I had come, and were keen to make it clear that despite the tragedy that has befallen them, life continues.

I am convinced that whatever grows out of this tragedy will be due to Haitians themselves, to individuals, rather than to institutions.

Facts and figures
  Since the 12 January earthquake, the ICRC has:

  • enabled 3,300 survivors to call relatives living abroad (working in cooperation with the Haitian Red Cross);
  • enabled 27,000 names to be registered on its family links site www.familylinks.icrc.org/haiti. Of these, 4,400 names were those of people wishing to let their families know they were alive. 
  • handled the cases of 40 unaccompanied children staying at the Maison Arc-en-Ciel (a UNICEF-approved institution) with a view to their being reunited with their families; 
  • visited some 700 detainees in the main police stations of Port-au-Prince and in Cap-Haïtien Prison; 
  • started to repair the sanitation and water systems of Port-au-Prince Prison; 
  • supplied 20 tonnes of food, to feed 4,000 detainees for three weeks; 
  • set up 10 first-aid posts in Port-au-Prince and two in Petit-Goâve (in coordination with the Haitian Red Cross); 
  • supplied medicines to the Rosalie Rendu maternity/paediatric centre in Cité Soleil and provided water – over 500 children under five come for consultations each day; 
  • distributed drinking water to 16,000 people in Port-au-Prince every day and helped the authorities to repair the water network that serves the 207,000 inhabitants of Cité Soleil; 
  • distributed essential items to 11,000 people in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Cayes, and distributed 50 tonnes of food to over 4,000 people in Delmas 60 and Primature (Port-au-Prince); 
  • financed waste collection at four sites that are hosting some 8,000 displaced persons.   

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