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Haiti’s heroes

 

Even in the wake of catastrophic loss, the Haitian National Red Cross Society responded with exceptional dignity, poise and professionalism.

AT ST PIERRE SQUARE IN PÉTIONVILLE, a small suburb east of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of survivors gathered, shocked and dazed, many injured. Some had escaped with scrapes and scratches but others had sustained deep gashes, open head wounds, crushed bones and badly fractured arms and legs.

Across the road, in the garage beneath the mayor’s office, Haitian National Red Cross Society volunteers established a first-aid station. The space was cramped. Cars filled much of the garage, but a steady stream of people passed through. Wounds were dressed, broken bones set.

“It’s not the best place,” says Rita Aristide, a veteran Haitian Red Cross volunteer steeled by the aftermath of hurricanes, “but people are coming and we are caring for them.”

Today thousands of people like Aristide are at the heart of the Red Cross Red Crescent Move ment’s response. Haiti’s Red Cross Society has broad disaster experience. The 2007 hurricanes, Dean and Noel, and 2008’s Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike have left volunteers and staff with extensive experience on how to deliver life-saving aid in horrendous circumstances. Just last year, the Haitian Red Cross offered first-aid training to roughly 8,000 volunteers.

Victims and volunteers

This background may be one reason that Haitian Red Cross volunteers were able to respond so quickly, even after suffering devastating losses. “At first, I just couldn’t accept what had happened,” says Cariolain, a 31-year-old volunteer working at a first-aid station in an improvised camp in a football stadium. “It was thanks to my work as a volunteer that I was able to keep going.”

In the days following the disaster, Haitian Red Cross volunteers not only kept going — they were at the lead of relief efforts, partnering quickly with international aid agencies and helping others even while grieving the loss of their own colleagues, friends and family. Meanwhile, many of the facilities they used to rely on for supplies — blood, medicine, food, communications — were destroyed.

Before the earthquake, the Haitian Red Cross had some 2,500 volunteers in Port-au-Prince and about 10,000 nationwide. Today, many volunteers, as well as paid staff, are missing and presumed dead.

“The volunteers, too, suffered appalling losses,” said IFRC President Tadateru Konoé during a visit to Haiti on 20 January. “They are shocked and grieving. And yet their desire to help their fellow human beings takes priority. They are true humanitarian heroes and we are both proud of and humbled by their dedication.”

The commitment of Haitian Red Cross volunteers and the respect they’ve earned in vulnerable communities also meant that they and other Movement delegates were able to deliver vital aid quickly to places where many aid agencies could not, or would not, go — the sprawling makeshift camps in Bel Air, one of Port-au-Prince’s most violent slums, or Belekou, the most destitute quarter in Cité Soleil.

That’s one reason Red Cross Red Crescent distributions have been generally smooth and secure. “We don’t use barbed wire or armed security,” says one IFRC team leader. “We rely on our emblem and the goodwill people have for the Haitian Red Cross.”

Today, the National Society continues to work side-by-side with Red Cross Red Crescent colleagues from around the world in conducting assessments, evaluating needs, distributing relief, providing medical care, offering psychological support and setting up water and sanitation in and around Port-au-Prince.

A case in point: a partnership with displaced residents to install a temporary water distribution system at their camp, known locally as Terrain Acra. After consulting with the residents, the Red Cross Red Crescent set up a water bladder that provides 15 litres of water per day per person for 2,000 people. “Water is life,” says resident Hélène Fleurival. “We wait a long time for food but we can go without food. But we need the water. Now we have water to drink — praise God.”

Meanwhile, many among the permanent Red Cross Red Crescent delegations have also expressed admiration for their Haitian colleagues. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Haitian staff,” says Riccardo Conti, the head of ICRC’s Haiti delegation. “They were living with terrible uncertainty and loss, and yet they continued to come to work and keep the operations going.”

The lucky ones

Throughout the Movement, delegates refer to their Haitian colleagues as “heroes”. They tell stories of volunteers such as nurses Michelle Yvétia and Emmanuella Michel, empathizing with the wounded while working feverishly to soothe the wounds. Or Guetson Lamour, administrator and logistics manager, racing behind the scenes to ensure that all the aid is distributed to the right place at the right time.

Still, many of these volunteers are quick to describe themselves as the lucky ones — who now have the privilege to help others. A computer technician by profession, Pluviose Louken had been volunteering his services with the Haitian Red Cross in his spare time. Since the earthquake, he has been tending to thousands of wounded earthquake survivors at Canapé Vert.

“I had nowhere to go so I came here,” he says. “My house is gone. My family is OK. I have some cousins who were injured but nothing major. Here I can help others who are not so lucky as me.”


Members of the Haitian National Red Cross Society carry an elderly earthquake survivor to a first-aid station in La Primature, Port-au-Prince.
©Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We don’t use barbed wire or armed security. We rely on our emblem and the goodwill people have for the Haitian Red Cross.”
IFRC team leader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A worker with the Haitian National Red Cross Society gives first aid to a young boy with head injuries.
©Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

 

 

 

 

 

By Paul Conneally/IFRC, Malcolm Lucard/RCRC magazine, Gennike Mayers/IFRC and Simon Schorno/ICRC contributed to this report.

 

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