Armed gangs rob Haiti's starving children

After leaving 2,300 dead, the fourth hurricane of a devastating season now threatens Bahamas and Florida - again

By Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Andrew Buncombe in Washington

26 September 2004


Armed gangs roamed Haiti yesterday, stealing food from the hungry and hope from entire communities as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere struggled with the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne. The storm's death toll is now feared to be at least 2,300, and that figure may yet rise appreciably.

Jeanne is now heading for the Bahamas and Florida, where, if it hits, it will be the fourth hurricane in this ugly season ­ an event which has not happened in the US since 1886, and in the "Sunshine State" since 1851. Hurricanes have so far killed 70 in Florida this year ­ a bad enough statistic until one turns to Haiti, where more than 5,000 have died in freak weather and the ensuing floods since May. A total of 300,000 people are now homeless in the country's north-west province alone.

Hundreds were yesterday being added to shallow, mass graves, one of the few acts that was not being actively opposed by armed gangs. But gunmen were stealing food from Haitians outside aid distribution centres as UN troops were struggling to maintain order.

The secretary general of the Haitian Red Cross, Berthony Marlet, said additional security was badly needed. He had heard children crying for help as gunmen entered their homes to rob them of newly distributed food. "Gunmen have attacked residents who just got assistance and now they are attacking humanitarian convoys. We definitely need more security on the ground," Mr Marlet said.

Late on Friday, UN troops from Argentina fired smoke grenades as crowds of flood victims tried to break into a schoolyard where Care International was giving grain and water to an orderly line of women.

About 500 men, women and children outside the school tried to charge a gate, fled the smoke, but returned in surges once the air cleared. "We need everything ­ bread, clothes, clean water, food," said Mosau Alveus, 25, who waited hours from dawn and got just one bag of grain.

Images from the north of the country, in particular from the city of Gonaives, show flooded roads and people struggling through knee-deep mud in which lie the corpses of animals and humans. Limes have become a much sought-after commodity in the city of 250,000 because people hold the fruit to their noses to relieve the stench.

With so many people to bury, survivors are resorting to mass graves to dispose of the bodies before they cause disease. Some Haitians have attacked workers trying to bury the dead, complaining that the bodies received no religious rites ­ something considered extremely important to prevent a person's spirit from wandering and committing evil acts.

Gus Gavreau, the World Food Programme's director for Haiti, said they have been able to get food to only about 25,000 this week ­ one-10th of the city's population. Eric Mouillesarine, a UN humanitarian relief co-ordinator, said the gangs were mobbing relief workers and seizing supplies. "The problem here is gangs," he said. "But there's nothing we can do."

Earlier on Friday, an 18-wheel truck carrying relief supplies from the Church of God was attacked when it entered the city. People jumped on the moving truck, prised open the doors and threw out boxes of supplies. Troops shoved and pushed crowds off the truck.

They escorted it to the mud-baked camp of Argentine UN troops, who stood guard as church members threw out bananas, bottles of cooking oil and second-hand clothing. A stampede ensued with people diving into mud to grab what they could.

Damaged roads are also preventing food reaching the hungry. Aid trucks must ford floodwaters and mudslides on National Route 1, likely to be more hazardous after the rains. At least three trucks were mired in ditches along the road on Friday. With the country's harvest of rice and fruit already destroyed, the aid agency Care has launched an appeal for $3m [£1.7m] to provide relief over the next three months.

US experts, meanwhile, said that Jeanne could strike the coast of Florida sometime today if computer predictions of the storm's likely course were correct. Jeanne could turn into the latest in a devastating chain of hurricanes that have rattled south-west Florida (Charley), the state's midsection (Frances) and the Panhandle (Ivan).

Hurricane warnings were posted from south of Miami to St Augustine in north-east Florida, and tropical storm warnings extended north to Georgia and around the tip of the Florida peninsula and along the Gulf coast. Rainfall of up to 10 inches was expected in the storm's path, and flooding could be a major concern because previous hurricanes have already saturated the ground and filled canals, rivers and lakes.

In the Bahamas, a 700-island chain with a population of 300,000, residents of Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, both still recovering from the ravages of Frances three weeks ago, packed into shelters as the storm hit.

Several areas were flooded, some up to five feet deep, and gusty winds and crashing waves buffeted Nassau. Winds ripped up roofs, toppled power lines and trees, and phone services were knocked out in some areas. There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.