United Nations confronts life and death in Haiti

January 20, 2010
MINUSTAH's collapsed headquarters in Port-au-Prince.

MINUSTAH's collapsed headquarters in Port-au-Prince.

Everybody who knew French Canadian U.N. staffer Alexandra Duguay loved her. She was attractive, energetic and extremely intelligent. I got to know her well when she worked behind the media counter at U.N. headquarters. She was always eager to make sure we reporters had the latest resolutions, U.N. reports and speeches. And in the evening she enjoyed a glass of wine or beer at the Delegates Lounge. But she was bored with her job and wanted more adventure. One morning last spring she had an unusual twinkle in her eye. I asked her if something was up and she said yes. “I’m going to Haiti.” A few months later she had her going-away party at the U.N. Correspondents Association room. She and her boyfriend prepared for their imminent deployment to Haiti, where Alex was to be a spokeswoman and media coordinator for U.N. operations in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation.

Alex quickly settled into her exciting new job. Late last year she emailed me an update of life in Port-au-Prince: “Even though it’s a bit of a s****y place, I can’t complain. I just spend too much time between my house and my hotel room, a.k.a. office. Yeah, we have peacocks as pets … Haitians are nuts. Lovely but nuts.”

Alex, 31, was one of dozens of U.N. workers who died after the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters in Haiti and other buildings collapsed during an earthquake on January 12. It was the biggest loss of life during a single event in the world body’s 65-year history.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the ruins of the MINUSTAH building.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the ruins of the MINUSTAH building.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid tribute to the dead U.N. staffers a few days later when he visited the ruins of the 5-story Christopher Hotel, where the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) had its offices, saying that he lacked the words to express his sorrow. Shortly after he left the site, where the stench of death hung thick in the air, a U.S. search-and-rescue team pulled a Danish man out of the rubble, dehydrated after five days without water or food, but alive and conscious.


U.N. officials in Haiti said the containers were a provisional morgue.

“I am very glad that it was a great sign of hope,” Ban told reporters later. “Saving lives is our first priority and I hope that we see more such miracles.”

There were a few other stories of miraculous survival. Imran Gardner, the 5-month-old son of U.N staffers in Haiti, Esra and William Gardner, was rescued from under the rubble of their home by unidentified Haitians.

Sadly, such survival stories were the exception. As many as 200,000 people are believed to have died in the earthquake and some of their bodies may never be recovered. A group of containers at the U.N. logistics base at the Port-au-Prince airport, which several U.N. officials insisted was not refrigerated, has become an unofficial U.N. morgue.

Some U.N. staffers complained to reporters traveling with Ban that the search-and-rescue teams weren’t working fast enough or that they were prioritizing citizens of their own countries. But the U.S. team’s rescue of a Danish MINUSTAH employee appeared to contradict that. (Click here to see footage of his rescue as filmed by Nicholas Birnback of U.N. DPKO) Still, Ban is facing criticism from some U.N. staff, who accuse him of having been too slow to acknowledge the extent of the damage. One blog report suggested Haiti might be Ban’s equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Some U.N. officials have also been puzzled by their bosses’ tendency to play down or dismiss media reports of looting and violence in Haiti. A senior U.N. official told Reuters of the media “sensationalism” over Haiti. But the latest reports from on the ground would appear to confirm that the looting and violence are not widespread.

One senior Western diplomat acknowledged that there had also been tension between the United Nations and U.S. military immediately after the earthquake as U.S. soldiers prioritized military flights into the hobbled Port-au-Prince airport and turned away some aid flights. But the diplomat said such tensions were “inevitable” in a disaster situation and have since been smoothed over. He said the U.N. was now ably coordinating the relief effort.

I and other reporters traveling with Ban saw few, if any, U.N. peacekeepers on the streets of Port-au-Prince who weren’t actively involved in trying to keep ordinary Haitians away from the U.N. delegation’s convoy. But the search-and-rescue teams were visible. I saw at least half a dozen rescue squads from France, Israel, Germany and elsewhere in normal residential areas picking their way methodically through heaps of rubble to try to liberate anyone who might be trapped.

The world body, which has some 9,000 troops and police stationed in Haiti to maintain peace and security, asked the U.N. Security Council to boost the number of blue helmets in the Caribbean nation by 3,500. (The U.S. military also has some 12,000 troops on the ground, offshore or en route who U.S. officials say are working in coordination with the U.N.) In less than 24 hours the 15-nation Security Council unanimously approved the increase, record speed for a body that has a reputation for dragging its feet. Diplomats in New York said that the quick action of the Security Council showed that it is a force to be reckoned with when its five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — have no disputes on the need for intervention.

The United Nations will continue to mourn its dozens of dead as the world body’s death toll rises in the coming days. At the top of the list are the head of MINUSTAH, Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, and his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa of Brazil, who, like Alexandra Duguay, died in the earthquake and will be missed sorely by all those who knew them.

(By Louis Charbonneau)

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