This week’s earthquake in Haiti has been a catastrophe for the island nation, with hundreds of thousands feared dead. Less well documented but equally tragic is that relief organizations, including the United Nations, have also been swept up in the disaster’s wake.
The United Nations has suffered its worst loss of life from a single incident in its history as a result of the January 12 earthquake. As of this writing, the United Nations has reported the loss of 36 lives of its personnel – 13 civilians, 4 policemen and 19 members of the UN military peacekeeping force. At least 150 members of the UN international staff in Haiti remain unaccounted for, including some of the most senior UN officials there. Some UN personnel remain under the rubble that was once the UN’s headquarters building in Haiti, the Christopher Hotel. Half of the Christopher Hotel has totally collapsed.
All the while, to the credit of the UN personnel operating as best they can on the ground, they have redoubled their efforts to maintain order and to deliver humanitarian aid to the earthquake survivors literally living in the streets. Despite the loss of life in its own ranks, the United Nations has been coordinating all rescue, safety and humanitarian efforts in Haiti.
Search and rescue teams have been using dogs and electronic sensing equipment to try to find survivors. There have been at least 8 live rescues of UN personnel, including an Estonian bodyguard who was located when scratching sounds were heard. He was given water through a rubber pipe, and was extracted from the rubble in reasonably good shape.
Reporting via video link from Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, Kim Bolduc and senior UN official David Wimhurst described their own harrowing escapes and the human devastation that they observed all around them. There were many dead bodies piled up on the streets, with the injured lying in the road “in a state of shock.” The capital, they said, resembled a “ghost town.” Bolduc and Wimhurst could not confirm reports that fatalities in Haiti have exceeded 100,000, but they said they would not be surprised if that turned out to be the case.
Amidst all of this carnage, Haitian President Rene Preval has taken no observable leadership role. He managed to create more confusion when he claimed, without any apparent confirmation, that the head of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, was dead. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Thursday that he had no information on which to conclude that Annabi was in fact dead and could not reach Preval to determine the basis of Preval’s assertion.
The Haitian police have been nowhere to be found, according to the UN officials reporting from Haiti. The UN forces, supported by U.S. Marines sent by President Obama, will shoulder the burden of preventing mayhem as tensions rise in the capital and elsewhere in Haiti. A question unanswered by UN officials was whether the Marines would be expected to operate under UN command. Nor was there any clarification of the rules of engagement for the UN forces if serious rioting were to break out. For example, would live ammunition be used as it was last November, which resulted in injuries to civilians?
These questions and others will require answers sooner or later. However, the United Nations deserves full support at this critical hour for Haiti. In disastrous conditions, the bravery, dedication and sacrifice being shown by the UN personnel on the ground in Haiti have been astounding.