At what price security in Haiti?

Caritas sets up a mobile basic health clinic in Leogane, one of the areas hit hardest by the earthquake. UN Peacekeepers help with the unloading and provide the security. Credit: Katie Orlinsky/ Caritas 2010

By Conor O’Loughlin, Communications Officer for Trocaire (Caritas Ireland)

Haiti has a soundtrack. Before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince swelled with the noise of two million people in a city that could comfortably accommodate probably one quarter of them. Then on January 12 the air exploded with the deep bass of the earth itself on the move. Then the screams and laments, the orchestra of the damned. The next day was quiet. People were too dazed and shocked.

On the first night after the disaster people started to sing. On the streets, in groups, afraid to go back indoors, they prayed and sang by candlelight. They sang for a better tomorrow because their yesterdays had failed so spectacularly to given them anything to sing for.

Now, more than two weeks later, the urban cacophony has returned. Clapped out cars jostle for space and attention on the roads. Cockerels seem to inhabit every patch of grass ensuring that nobody in this city can sleep much past 5am. People – so many people – are back on the streets, selling their wares at the tops of their voices.

But there is a new sound here now. One that makes the air vibrate almost continuously in a way that makes you think the much-feared second earthquake could be upon us. It is the constant thump of low flying military helicopters delivering aid and personnel all over the city.

There is no question that the logistical might of the United States Marines is impressive. They have mobilised aircraft, boats and vehicles with incredible speed. They have succeeded in delivering tons of urgent food and medical supplies to the stricken people of Haiti.

Caritas itself has benefited from both the US military and UN peacekeepers, who have provided security for aid distributions in Port-au-Prince and Leogane and helped our aid ships dock. We’re immensely grateful for that.

But military personnel are not aid experts and having such a large military presence brings with it tensions.

For example, in the early days of the disaster, the US military took over Port-au-Prince’s airport. It’s only a small airport, and didn’t have the capacity to deal with an emergency of this size and the need to bring large numbers of people and aid. Since the US took over the airport, the bottleneck has been lifted and aid flights are able to come and go much more easily.

Initially however the US military prioritised military flights over humanitarian airplanes carrying food, medical supplies, doctors and other experts. They eventually agreed that humanitarian planes should take precedence but what their initial decision exposed was that, from a military perspective, their first priority was to create conditions of security.

Perhaps they were right, but it is also possible to argue that they would never have achieved any level of security or stability until the people of Haiti got the supplies they so desperately needed.

Co-operation between NGOs and the military – any military – has a long and difficult history. It can be difficult sometimes for a host population to distinguish between the myriad groups of foreigners flooding their landscape in the wake of a disaster. (In a conflict scenario it is even more complex, with tensions high and political affiliations to the fore.) NGOs are by their nature largely benelovent set-ups but any military engagement is always accompanied by a certain element of distrust or cynicism.

It doesn’t help that the troops in Haiti are heavily armed and their oversized, camouflage-painted Humvee trucks seem to clog every artery and highway in Port-au-Prince. In the early aftermath there was a lot of reports of insecurity and chaos here, and there was a certain amount of truth to those reports. The troops would doubtless now lay claim to having quelled that tension. But two important questions remain: what would the security situation look like now if they weren’t here (we’ll never know) and, if the tensions are gone, just how long do they plan to remain?

One solution might be for a precise mandate for the US military engagement to be drawn up between their commanders and the Government of Haiti, indicating their precise roles and responsibilities as we begin the move from the relief phase into recovery. Added to that, a strict timetable for engagement, to include an agreed-upon date for withdrawal, should be agreed as a matter of priority.

To employ a cliché, the road to recovery will be a long one. The Haitians themselves must lead the way but we in the humanitarian sector will be by their side for the duration.

Caritas Haiti President Bishop Pierre Dumas called for a human face for aid this week in Rome. Caritas believes the military has played a vital role so far, but the bishop is urging us to take a step back and look at the aid distributions from a Haitian perspective. How would we like to receive aid only under armed guard?

The media likes to focus on the few aid distributions that have gone wrong, and ignore the overwhelming majority that have been peaceful. We cannot ignore that security threats exist, but likewise we must be savvy to the impression we are giving to the people we are there to help.

As humanitarians, we all dream of a day when foreign troops will be unnecessary to this process and when we can wave them goodbye, with thanks for a job done quickly.

Until then the sky above me throbs with the blades of yet more helicopters, and the cacophony goes on.

Please read a policy paper on Caritas Internationalis and its relations with the Military.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Haiti, Haiti, Latin America

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