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U.N. officials reject criticism of Haiti relief efforts

U.N. officials reject criticism of Haiti relief efforts

U.N. peacekeepers stop protesters outside the airport

Facing criticism over the sluggish international relief effort in Haiti, top U.N. officials have mounted a vigorous defense of the organization’s handling of the crisis, and asserted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acted decisively to address the needs of suffering U.N. staff and Haitians.

U.N. officials say that they are still struggling to unblock a clogged operational bottleneck that has delayed the delivery of relief to Haitian civilians, but are now feeding hundreds of thousands of people and expect to reach more than one million in two weeks. And they are trying to raise $40 million to fund a program to provide cash and food to Haitians in exchange for work, they say.

The U.N.’s top emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, said the U.N. is working closely with major relief agencies to step up assistance, but voiced concern about the possible arrival of a second “tsunami-like” wave of fringe relief organizations that “don’t really have much capacity but want to be seen on the ground producing loads of Teddy Bears or whatever, which people don’t need.”

U.N. officials said media reports of widespread looting in Haiti were overblown and that the security situation remained relatively calm. “It’s clear that it is happening,” said Alain Le Roy, the U.N.’s top peacekeeping official. “But it has happened in Haiti for decades. There was always looting here and there.”

U.N. officials also pushed back on recent Turtle Bay reporting suggesting that Secretary-General Ban appeared slow to grasp the seriousness of the calamity, telling journalists some 14 hours after the earthquake that that the death toll could rise into the hundreds, a figure that contrasted with the thousands predicted by Haitians and another U.N. envoy. Ban had also initially announced that it might take a full two days before his special envoy would arrive in Haiti, though his schedule was accelerated later in the day.

At a luncheon with a small number of reporters hosted by the U.N. Foundation, Ban said he immediately set up a Haitian task force to manage the crisis and phoned former President Bill Clinton, his special envoy for Haiti, and U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice within hours after the earthquake hit, asking for American transport helicopters and for the U.S. to repair the damaged air control tower to enable relief supplies to come into the country. Within days, he said, he had secured support from the Security Council to authorize the dispatch of 3,500 peacekeepers to reinforce the U.N. mission.

Ban acknowledged problems in the initial days following the earthquake, including a chaotic period at the airport that prevented the arrival of relief planes. But he said that airport traffic had improved, that the U.N. has since opened five land corridors to deliver aid, and that the U.S. has agreed to take on the costly reconstruction of the Haitian port.

“I think we have been managing this situation well,” said Ban. “The U.N. took up this issue immediately. We assembled the best people at headquarters; we dispatched the best people on the ground. You should understand the magnitude, the enormity, of this situation.” But he cautioned that “we still have to address the bottleneck to delivery” and that “there should be no illusion that this will be over in a week, or even a month.”

Ban urged Haitians to show patience, saying the flow of aid will begin to increase over the coming days, and that he would work to provide immediate jobs for Haiti’s young. “I was struck by so many young people just wonder[ing] around aimlessly without knowing what to do,” Ban recalled from his weekend tour of Port-au-Prince. “‘We want jobs, we want jobs’: this is what they were shouting.”

U.N. officials in New York have also sought to underscore what they see as the many acts of heroism performed by U.N. officials in Haiti, including many who lost family members and friends in the earthquake.

Logan Abassi, a U.N. photographer, helped rescue a Haitian man who was trapped under a phone company building, according to a U.N. account. Abbasi was following a group of U.N. peacekeepers in order to capture photos of the looting in Port-au-Prince when he heard the voice of Pierre-Louis Ronny, a 43-year-old employee who worked at the building. Abassi flagged down a Russian search-and-rescue team that pulled Ronny alive from the rubble.

Officials also cited the bravery of Kim Bolduc, a Canadian relief worker who temporarily took charge after the mission’s two leaders, Hedi Annabi and Luiz Carlos da Costa, were killed. Bolduc, who has asked to stay on in Haiti, had previously served in the U.N. mission in Baghdad in 2003, when a suicide bomber attacked U.N. headquarters, killing 22 officials and guests. Her colleague died at their shared conference table.

In this month’s earthquake, Bolduc was sitting in her second-floor office when another building threatened to collapse. “It was extremely violent,” she recalled. “I didn’t have time to seek cover. I was sitting on my chair and holding on to the table. Everything collapsed around me. I saw the wall in front of me opening up with a very large crack … It lasted a long time.”

David Wimhurst, another Canadian national who survived the collapse of the U.N. headquarters building in Haiti, went back to work immediately.

“David Wimhurst got his whole team out of a third-story window by screaming down to the people on the street to ‘get a ladder, get a ladder,'” said Nick Birnback, the U.N. spokesman for the department of peacekeeping, who served under Wimhurst during the 1999 siege of the U.N. compound in East Timor. “The next day he went to the logistics base to get the U.N. information center up and running. The staff in Minustah never stopped working despite the conditions, despite what they had been through.”

Birnback said the response both inside Haiti and at U.N. headquarters has been made all the more difficult by the emotional impact the earthquake has had on staff, most of whom have worked long hours, with little time to stop and grieve for lost friends.

Birnback accompanied Ban on his trip to Haiti this weekend. As he surveyed the wreckage of the Christopher Hotel, the U.N.’s headquarters building, he received confirmation that his former assistant, Renee Carrier, had been killed there. “Every single one of us in peacekeeping has friends who were killed,” he said.

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images