Peacekeepers fight off riots in Haiti

U.N. workers hand out food in country ravaged by storms

September 25, 2004|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,NEWSDAY

GONAIVES, Haiti - United Nations peacekeepers fired shots into the air and lobbed tear gas to disperse Haitians rioting outside a food distribution center in this tempest-ravaged city yesterday, underscoring the growing volatility of the humanitarian crisis wrought by Tropical Storm Jeanne.

Pandemonium erupted when groups of young men believed to be gang members began pushing their way to the front of a line of about 1,000 mud-splattered people - many of whom hadn't eaten in days - by pummeling those ahead of them with sticks and plastic food buckets.

"Get back! We're starving!" angry Haitians roared as they tried to push the men back. Some began fistfights.

Members of the crowd screamed, fell to the ground or ran in panic as peacekeepers guarding the food began firing assault rifles into the air, but no one was injured.

The fray was the fiercest of several scuffles that have erupted at food lines since Jeanne hit Gonaives last Saturday, destroying much of the city of 250,000.

International aid workers were clearly frustrated by the growing security problems surrounding their already daunting mission. Haitian civil defense officials say the storm left at least 1,160 dead and 1,250 missing, and affected nearly 300,000 nationwide, most of them in this city, which remains without electricity and where at least 22,000 people are homeless.

"Even in the Congo-Brazzaville there's more order than here," said Eric Mouillefarine, head of the U.N. humanitarian aid team in Gonaives. Brazzaville is the capital of the civil-war-racked Republic of the Congo.

He accused the Haitian government of not providing adequate local security to back the 400 U.N. peacekeepers deployed in this city, which like much of Haiti is beset by armed gangs. An additional 150 multinational troops were to arrive today.

Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest nation, and one of its most troubled, has no army and almost no police force.

Before dawn yesterday, would-be food looters burglarized the church that was being used as the distribution center, where the riot broke out later, but the supplies - mostly rice, beans, wheat and cooking oil - had been moved, U.N. officials said.

Even before the fracas, tempers flared as storm victims, most standing barefoot in the putrid rivers of mud that still course through much of the city and its buildings, waited for food handouts for hours under a punishing sun. Many said they'd waited six hours for food Thursday as well but left after being jostled by gang members.

Many residents accused gang members of seizing food handouts and distributing them to followers or selling them on the black market - something aid workers couldn't confirm.

Relief workers said they have sufficient food but are unable to distribute it to all areas because so much of Gonaives remains under mud and many affected areas lack roads wide enough for the 10-ton delivery trucks.

As for drinking water, "We have only a fraction of what we need," said Joe Fay, a health adviser to Oxfam, a worldwide relief agency. Fay fears a health epidemic because of the number of floating animal carcasses.

At Independence Place, the city's main square, groups hawked gasoline, as well as fried fish, boiled eggs and potato chips at two to three times the normal rate, but they had few buyers because most residents have no money.

Desperate for food and drink at affordable prices, many Gonaives residents walked nearly six hours south to the nearest market, balancing sacks on their heads and hiking their skirts or shorts as they waded through the flooded road.

"If we wait for food handouts in Gonaives, we'll starve," Jacqueline Riche, who lost two nephews, said as she waded on through the muck.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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