Working in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti

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Moustafa OsmanMoustafa Osman is an expert in humanitarian relief and a part-time lecturer in IDD, teaching Introduction to Disaster Management.  He was in Haiti in January.

I was in Abu Dhabi teaching Disaster Management to government officials and national NGOs when the news hit about the Haiti earthquake. I made an immediate call to my family to prepare my deployment kit and another call to Islamic Relief Worldwide to book my ticket, prepare for my travel, and arrange for members of the disaster response team to join the mission. After some struggles considering different options and airlines, we finally managed to get to Santo Domingo in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, then on to Port-au-Prince within 72 hours.

Approaching Port-au-Prince on the fourth day after the earthquake was quite an experience. The first thing that struck us was the overwhelming smell, the smell of death, and the scene of dead bodies lying by the side of the road: something I did not like to see and I do not want to see, as I hate to see human beings losing their dignity.  Unfortunately I have experienced similar scenes on several occasions before in Iraq, Aceh and Mozambique.

The capital was in a chaotic state. Everybody was living in the street. This was no wonder as there was no place to go and no roof to hide under, especially with the risk of aftershocks. A huge number of young men queued outside the UN peacekeeping offices looking for a job. I stopped and recruited Michael, an English teacher, to take us around and help with translation. In the heat we drove over to the heart of the city.  In downtown Port–au-Prince, not a single building had been left standing. The smell of death was suffocating; everyone was using something to cover his nose and mouth.

Looting was ongoing. Some call it survival, which I can accept in many cases, but what I saw was anarchy, and we felt extreme danger as people fought each other using machetes, steel bars and all other possible means.

Public parks, car parks and even the main roads are occupied by makeshift shelters made from bed sheets. In many cases people made their makeshift accommodation in the middle of the road either to attract attention for help or as a sign of protest against the government and everybody else.

We set up our small camp (2 small tents) in the airport, where UN peacekeepers and the international humanitarian community are based. The camp was overcrowded and facilities limited, as the UN peacekeepers who used to live in houses or flats in the area had moved inside the camp after their houses were destroyed — and for safety.

Saint Clair camp, 25 January 2010

Saint Clair camp, 25 January 2010

Humanitarian agencies face a significant dilemma in trying to get the balance right between looking after their own safety and fulfilling their duty, in particular the principle of the humanitarian imperative. As the street is not safe, it is very challenging to deliver aid to the most needy. During the first week, even the aid workers were in survival mode, trying to make sense of it all, settling themselves in, finding out where to sleep, where to wash.

I’ve been an aid worker for almost twenty years, but each disaster is unique and each context is different.  Media scrutiny is now much more intense and immediate, and journalists sometimes have limited understanding that while it is easy enough for them to arrive as individuals, delivering large quantities of necessary supplies cannot be achieved so quickly.  Haiti had weak infrastructure and problems with law and order even before the quake. Due to the humanitarian situation, many organisations were already present in the country, but they also suffered significant losses themselves, including the head of the UN mission in the country.

For more of Moustafa Osman’s reports from Haiti, see his personal blog at:

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