Haiti’s Children uncertain of Future
The children with no names lay mute in a corner of the General Hospital grounds Tuesday, three among thousands of boys and girls set adrift in the wake of Haiti’s earthquake.
“Hi, Joe, how are you?” the American doctor tried, using a pet name the staff had given a boy of about 11.
There was no response.
“Joe,” “Baby Sebastian” and the girl who didn’t even have a nickname hadn’t spoken or cried since they were brought in over the previous 48 hours — by neighbors, passers-by, no one knows who. “Sebastian,” only a week old, was said to have been taken from the arms of his dead mother.
They’re lucky: Haitian-born Dr. Wisdom Price and the staff were treating them for infections and other ailments. Hundreds of thousands of hungry and thirsty children are scattered among Port-au-Prince’s squatter camps of survivors, without protection against disease or child predators — often with nobody to care for them.
“There’s an estimated 1 million unaccompanied or orphaned children or children who lost one parent,” said Kate Conradt, a spokeswoman for the aid group Save the Children. “They are extremely vulnerable.”
The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, has established a special tent camp for girls and boys who, one way or another, were separated from their parents in the Jan. 12 quake, and who are in danger of falling prey to child traffickers and other abusers. The Connecticut-based Save the Children has set up “Child Spaces” in 13 makeshift settlements. The Red Cross and others, meanwhile, are working to reunite families.
The post-quake needs of Haiti’s children were nonetheless outrunning the available help. Some youngsters were even being released from hospitals with no one to care for them — there just aren’t enough beds for them.
“Health workers are being advised to monitor and send separated/unaccompanied children to child-friendly spaces,” the U.N. humanitarian office said in its latest situation report.
The plight of the young is especially poignant even in a country where the U.N. estimates 3 million out of a population of 9 million need international assistance in the quake’s aftermath. “We still have a huge distance to go,” said John Holmes, the U.N. relief coordinator.
That was evident in Port-au-Prince’s streets, alleys and crumbled doorways, where handwritten messages begged for help. In the Juvenat neighborhood, a group of 50 families scrawled in green on a white sheet hung from a doorway: “We need food assistance, water and medicine.”
It was evident, too, among the tightly packed line of jostling people waiting for food aid near the quake-devastated National Palace, under the nervous watch of Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers who occasionally fired pepper spray or pointed their guns to control the crowd.
“They treat us like animals. They beat us, but we are hungry people,” said Muller Bellegarde, 30, who had been waiting 90 minutes in the broiling sun.
Thomas Louis, 40, who was trying to get rice and oil for his two babies, said the people appreciated the foreign help, but “this is anarchy. This is not aid. This is a way to put people down.”
The monumental scale of the Haiti disaster — perhaps 200,000 dead, a capital city on its knees — has severely strained the world’s ability to get relief supplies through Port-au-Prince’s overloaded airport and crippled seaport.
Some 800 to 1,000 aid flights were still awaiting permission to land, a seven-day backlog, U.N. and European officials reported Tuesday. On top of that, “trucks are needed,” U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva — especially small trucks because “the streets are extremely congested.”
The U.N.’s Holmes estimated that 2 million people need food, but only 500,000 have received some so far.
The medical picture has improved, but remains critical. World Health Organization spokesman Paul Garwood said more medical staff were still needed, especially rehabilitation specialists, to help with postoperative recovery of 200,000 people who have had amputations or other surgery.
Haitian and volunteer staff from dozens of countries worked around the clock. In some hospitals, they were still performing up to 100 amputations a day.
At the General Hospital, Price strode from one tent to another to check on the 81 children under his care. The staff interrupted the tall, balding pediatrician with a string of questions: “Do you know about this baby?” “Where’s the medication?” “Where will we sleep tonight?”
Of the nameless, speechless trio, he was treating young Joe for an infection oozing from both eyes. The 7-pound (3-kilogram) Baby Sebastian, in a white diaper decorated with sheep, had diarrhea. The unnamed girl, about 10, lay listlessly and stared upward. She had an eye infection but was generally fine and was to be picked up by the staff of an orphanage Tuesday or Wednesday, Price said.
With no clues to their past, Price could only wonder.
“Maybe some of these parents are not even looking because their house was destroyed and they might think the kid was inside,” he said. “But maybe the kid was pulled out, so they are missing each other.”
Children left alone are everywhere. At one of the 13 Save the Children sites, about 25 children have no adult relatives taking care of them, Conradt said. She said the group has helped some 6,000 children since the quake.
The aid group’s “Child Spaces” are cordoned-off areas where children can play under supervision, “run around being children, giving them a chance to return to normalcy as much as they can.”
Such areas also protect children against the potential for abduction by child traffickers, a chronic problem in pre-quake Haiti, where thousands were handed over to other families into lives of domestic servitude, said Deb Barry, an emergency protection adviser with Save the Children.
She said her organization was working to track down every rumor it hears about threats to stranded children, “but we haven’t been able to verify those thus far.”
Save the Children, the Red Cross and other organizations, meanwhile, are trying to establish a joint database of information to try to reunite separated families.