Emily Sanson-Rejous, a U.N. relief worker from New Zealand, survived the Haiti earthquake physically unscathed. And only then did her earthquake hell begin.
The relief worker walked out of her office in the U.N. logistics base in Port au Prince only to quickly discover that her husband Emmanuel and three small daughters were trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed apartment building where they lived. Emily’s sister told Turtle Bay that she dug through the building’s remains for nearly 20 hours before finding her husband and one of her daughters. Both were dead. She rescued a second daughter, Alyahna, 2, who survived because her father had covered her with his own body. Her third daughter, Kofie-Jade, 5, who was named after the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, remains inside the rubble.
Her sister, Rachel, says the U.N. has not been helpful providing information about the fate of her sister’s family. Nor has the U.N. provided Emily, who is recovering in Florida, with psychological support; she is also having difficulty finding an orthopedic pediatrician to reset her surviving daughter’s broken leg.
“We need a specialist in trauma counseling. She spent a long time, twenty hours, trying to dig her family out of rubble,” Rachel said. “I understand this is apparently the worst crisis the U.N. has had to work with, ever,” she said. “I understand we are only one family. But when it’s your own family you will move mountains to try to get them.”
As first-person accounts of what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has called the “single biggest loss in the history of this organization” begin to emerge, the ordeal of Sanson-Rejous is a reminder that the U.N. not only lost at last count 46 people (though the number may climb well over 100 dead in the quake), but has hundreds more psychologically scarred officials out of a total community of nearly 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers and civil servants who were there.
Following days of uncertainty, the families, friends, and colleagues of the U.N. victims of the Haiti earthquake are finally receiving their first official confirmation of their loved ones’ deaths, extinguishing whatever little hope that they would survive the deadliest calamity in the U.N.’s history.
The bodies of the U.N. mission’s top leadership, special representative Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, and his deputy Luiz Carlos da Costa, were flown home with Ban to Newark airport late Sunday night, where they met a somber reception from grieving relatives. Canadian authorities, meanwhile, repatriated the remains of the mission’s police commissioner, Doug Coates.
Britain and France also announced the deaths of senior officials from their country, including Frederick Alan Wooldridge of Britain, a senior political advisor, and Marc Plum of France, who was overseeing all U.N. elections in Haiti. (The country was preparing for presidential and legislative elections this year.)
“Still we are not sure how many people are still under the rubble without knowing their fate,” Ban said following his trip to Port au Prince this weekend. Virtually everyone at U.N. headquarters — from top U.N. brass and diplomats to low level office workers and journalists — knew at least one person — if not several — who died in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
A community of grieving U.N. staffers set up a Facebook account to help friends and relatives search for word of their colleagues and loved ones, and to hold an online vigil for those who had died.
Among the portraits of the missing were U.N. staffers from around the world, including Andrew Grene, an Irish national who served as Annabi’s special assistant, and Guido Galli, an Italian relief expert. “Have you any information on my husband, Andrew?” a post from Grene’s wife asked. “I am also concerned about Gerard, Renee, Evens and so many others.”
Alexandra Duguay, a young French Canadian woman who was familiar to members of the U.N. press corps, was also listed among the missing. Duguay — who had worked in the U.N. headquarters documents center — had recently left her New York job to serve in the field.
Rachel Sanson said the loss of her sister’s daughters has been devastating to the family.
“We are very, very close family: from my perspective those girls are like my own daughters,” she said. She said that she and her husband, who have their own young son, had decided not to have a second child, in part because she believed her nieces would serves as his own sisters as he grew up.