WASHINGTON – Haiti's children are the main victims of last month's crisis,humanitarian groups say.
Even before the political upheaval,children faced enormous challenges. Haiti has been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere for 30 years,according to the 2003 United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report.
Bad water,malnutrition,starvation,dehydration,AIDS,cerebral palsy,hydrocephalic syndrome and wounds suffered in the crossfire of gang-related wars,are Haitian children's main causes of death.
Haiti,which is slightly smaller than Maryland,has a population of 7.5 million people,75 percent of whom are 15 years old or younger. Haiti has the worst child mortality rate in the world – one in nine children dies before age 5.
Seventy percent of Haitian families need food aid to make it from one day to the next.
Susan Krabacher,40,the president and co-founder of the Mercy and Sharing Foundation,a charity dedicated to building orphanages and schools for Haitian children who have been abandoned or orphaned,spoke at the National Press Club last week.
She said her program,which has fed and cared for nearly 1,900 children since it began 10 years ago,must cope with street thugs,drug dealers and gang leaders.
Many of the children or their relatives wind up in gang-related groups like the “shamirs,” an armed civilian group that supported the Lavalas party,which backed deposed president,Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“I've fed their kids. In return,I get a lot of protection and information,” Krabacher said.
In an interview,Krabacher said that she supported Aristide's resignation,but is not affiliated with the rebels. She said his departure was an answer to her prayers after being terrorized by his regime and government corruption.
When a child becomes an orphan in Haiti,the government automatically becomes his or her legal guardian,although humanitarian groups are the caregivers.
Stanley Joseph,43,a Port-au-Prince resident,is the director of the foundation in Haiti. In a telephone interview,he explained how difficult it is to deal with the government. “Our bureaucracy is one of the heaviest in the world,” he said.
Three years ago,the director of Haiti's department of social affairs refused to renew the foundation's orphanage license unless it gave her the title to the orphanage in Port-au-Prince,Krabacher said. She had to call several officials in Washington before the license was renewed.
The main focus of charities now is to recover from looting over the last three months.
Two days before Aristide's resignation,about 20 men with flatbed trucks arrived at the Mercy and Sharing Foundation's warehouses at City du Soleil. Holding guards at gunpoint,thieves took tens of thousands of dollar worth of diapers,rice,beans and medical supplies,Krabacher said.
“In one day,we lost what took at least one year to raise,collect and send to Haiti,” Krabacher said.
Many of the supplies belonged to other humanitarian organizations.
Save the Children Foundation has been in Haiti since 1985,focusing on nutrition,health and education for approximately 200,000 people in the Central Plateau. The group emphasizes helping expectant mothers and young children.
The organization lost 17 shipping crates of food provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
After the coup,Save the Children's main concern was moving critical shipments of food out of Port-au-Prince. Its mostly Haitian workers have not been affected as much by the violence as those in some groups because they work in remote rural areas.
“We have dealt with serious security issues in the past. We are hopeful to continue our work in Haiti. The children and their families need our help,” said Mike Kiernan,the group’s spokesman. “We are working closely with the U.S. AID,the U.N.,the military and local authorities as well as a number of other private relief agencies in seeking a successful way of moving the food from the port.”
“Save the Children remains concerned that,if delays continue,thousands of children and their families could face food shortages,” Kiernan said.
Because the group distributes food supplied by the U.S. government it does not have to pay for the loss,unlike Krabacher's group,which buys its food and will have to pay for new supplies.
Cooperation has increased in the last months among humanitarian organizations. Doctors,diapers and water are some of the things they now have to share.
Things were quiet during the week before and after Aristide's departure,Krabacher said. It wasn't until the following week,when roads were safer to travel,that the influx of sick children became overwhelming. Parents had been unable to seek medical care for the children while there was fighting.
“We had so many babies,we were placing two and three babies in one crib,” many of whom eventually died,Krabacher said.
“When it comes to a child,you can't say no. We are the biggest organization that does hands-on work with children anyway,so the ones that ask us are often the smaller ones,” Krabacher said,referring to other charities.
Krabacher said that after the coup,children in her group's care have had to go from two meals a day to one.
“The Pan American World Health Organization has given us verbal and written statements that we will start getting some food soon,because we are in real danger of our kids getting sick. One meal a day does not make a very good job,” Krabacher said.
Joseph said that the foundation received a relief shipment from the U.N. World Food Program.
In a fact sheet on its Web site,AID said the U.N. program reported enough food in the country to feed 373,000 people but that it needed stability to allow more shipments to arrive. A good harvest in December also reduced the chances of what one cooperating charity called “a food crisis” over the next few months.