By Roslyn Cassells
I have worked in aid projects in the south, and watch with mounting alarm the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, which went from severe to unimaginable following the recent earthquake and subsequent tremblers.
Widespread media reports have shown that .U.S military control of the only airport in Haiti has resulted in prioritization of "security" over life. Well-known and respected organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been refused landing access at the Port au Prince airport despite former approval. Other humanitarian aid shipments of food, water, medicine, and urgently-needed water purification systems are being held back, while soldiers and guns and other military paraphernalia are let in first.
Aid agencies agree that the security problems will only increase the longer the Haitian people are denied basic survival supplies. One can only imagine the desperation and despair they are feeling as armed guards and armoured trucks filled with supplies drive past their outstretched arms and ignore their pleas for help, their crying, dying children and family members lying on the street. Their dead and decomposing bodies are unceremoniously dumped in mass graves, with no attempt made at identification.
It is clear that a second wave of deaths—this one avoidable—has begun. One of the greatest dangers to the survivors of disasters comes from the very organizations and institutions that are supposed to help them. This is due to the attempt, often unwelcome by the local community, to re-assert state and police control over the people. In this case the state is the USA, and the policing, in particular the decision making, is mostly U.S. military.
In a time of complete societal collapse—where the entire infrastructure has been affected—survival scavenging is the only way to survive. There is no money, no functioning credit for credit cards, no banks, and no accessible aid for days, maybe weeks, on end. If people can find a few scraps of food or shelter materials in the wreckage of their destroyed community, it may be the difference between life and death for them, their family, and their community.
Soldiers and police are clearly prioritizing "security" over survival when they hog-tied a man in Haiti for "looting" a tin of milk, and shot dead another man for "looting" a bolt of fabric. The man was probably taking the milk for survival reasons, maybe for a family member, a baby perhaps, one of the many who have not received basic food aid or water, and who are living without shelter. The second man may have been killed trying to provide shelter from the boiling sun to his family and community. Many survivors are pulling cloth and sheets from under the rubble to use as protective roofs against the hot daytime temperatures, where they sit suffering on the hot pavement with no water to drink, no food to eat, and no medical treatment for dying loved ones. One can only imagine the suffering in our worst nightmares.
Sociologists and anthropologists agree that most people tend to work compassionately and cooperatively to achieve the common goal of survival in the face of disaster. Most "authorities", however, do not. In disasters, all the usual societal structures are not functioning, and there are many instances when governments, police, army, and other institutions behave aggressively in a failed attempt to reassert their control over the situation.
Over 300 people were murdered by authorities in San Francisco for survival scavenging following the earthquake there. After the horrific earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, authorities responded with callousness and corruption, while the local people formed teams that rescued people and fed and cared for them as best they could. The Mexican experience resulted in the local communities working together democratically and empowered them to continue after the quake. It led to the emergence of a housing rights movement and other socially progressive organizations which are still in existence and have served the people better than any government since.
In New Orleans people and aid were not allowed into the city and surrounding areas, and the survivors were not allowed out. Civilian patrols were responsible for the deaths of many African-American people who tried to walk out of the disaster zone but were shot dead by vigilantes. Others were shipped off to distant cities and never resettled in their home communities nor reunited with their families. It is still not known exactly how many people died in New Orleans following the flooding, but what is known is many of those deaths were avoidable, and some were deliberate.
There are no easy or quick solutions to the many problems facing the Haitian people. Until the people of Haiti regain their sovereignty, they will be unable to effect any political change in their own country. Short-term, however, it is incumbent on the media and the citizens of the world to keep their eyes focused on the international response to the earthquake. We must keep our Haitian sisters and brothers in our hearts and minds in their most difficult hour.
Roslyn Cassells is a B.C.-based social justice activist, Canada's first elected Green party candidate, and an ardent advocate for animals, human rights, and self-determination. She has worked in education and human rights in Latin America and continues to teach, write, and campaign for positive social, economic, and ecological change everywhere.