Arab nations bring relief to Haiti victims

Experienced search-and-rescue workers from Arab countries sift through the rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Robert Stolarik for The National
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
January 20, 2010
Members of  a Qatari search, rescue and medical team called the Internal Security Force from the Gulf emirate's interior ministry treat patients at a field hospital located at a mixed primary school called Notre dame du Mont Carmel on the outskirts  of Port-au-Prince's povery wracked slum, the Cite Soleil.
Dr Mootaz Ali (37) (C)) performs surgery on a girls broken leg inside the operating room, which was formerly a classroom.  *** Local Caption ***  HAITI-592.JPG

PORT-AU-PRINCE // With a drip atatched to her wrist and clean bandages swaddling an infected leg, Nadia Torcheneau, one of the many victims of Haiti's earthquake, benefits from stepped-up relief efforts from the Arab world. The 32-year-old, who was crushed under shattered glass and breeze blocks during the disaster on January 12, receives treatment in a makeshift Qatari-run field hospital on the outskirts of this capital city's crime-torn slum, Cité Soleil.

Although she gains from the significant numbers of Egyptian, Qatari and Jordanian rescuers, soldiers and doctors sent to this Caribbean nation, Ms Torcheneau would have difficulty locating these Arab donor countries on a map. "Qatar, I don't think I've ever heard of it. Maybe I saw something about it in a television show once, but I'm not sure," said the injured kindergarten teacher. "But I really want to thank them. They deserve a thousand thanks."

A 30-strong team left Doha only hours after the earthquake levelled much of Port-au-Prince, marking the Internal Security Force's first mission outside the Muslim world since it was founded by the Gulf emirate in 2004. When the government-owned C-17 hit the tarmac of the capital's international airport on the morning of January 16, two red off-road vans bearing a camel-rider emblem sped through cargo doors to deliver 50 tonnes of urgently needed supplies.

"This is a long way for us to come and the first time we have left our region," said the team's leader, Capt Mubarak al Kaabi, a walkie-talkie held almost permanently against his head. "But help means helping everybody, not just Arabic people." The 29-year-old chose a mixed primary school called Notre Dame du Mont Carmel, one of the best-preserved buildings close to the capital's slum, to become the first and only field hospital in the area.

Inside the school, groaning patients lay spread out on classroom desks as Qatari doctors perform rudimentary operations, patch up broken limbs with plaster of Paris and clean festering wounds that are dangerously infected. A blackboard on the classroom wall bears the French words: "Mardi 12 Janvier 2010", written before the clock struck 4.53pm and the earthquake left an estimated 110,000 dead and left many more of Haiti's 9.6 million people homeless.

The care available is a far cry from the sanitised operating theatres in Doha, but for the scores of patients queuing outside, this is the first doctor they have seen since seismic shifts devastated this city of three million. "We're seeing lots of broken bones, fractures and wounds that have become infected because nobody has seen to these patients for a whole week since the earthquake struck, and they haven't been able to get any medication," said Yasser Khourani, 40, a general surgeon.

Without running water or electricity, the team of 10 doctors, nurses and paramedics do their best with the materials available - prescribing "massive doses" of antibiotics to prevent infections from becoming gangrenous and requiring amputations. "The biggest problem we have is that hygiene is very bad here," said Mootaz Ali, 37, an orthopaedic surgeon. "We're putting limbs in splints and giving out antibiotics, but some of the infections are very bad and need to be treated many times. Some patients are not even able to take the antibiotics we give them because they don't have access to water."

The Qatari doctors have helped more than 500 quake victims since arriving, producing a constant stream of injured Haitians hobbling from the school grounds with freshly made white casts cladding their injured limbs. Their colleagues in search-and-rescue have been scouring a capital that lost more than one-third of its buildings, spending about 10 hours last Monday digging a Haitian woman from under a mountain of twisted steel and concrete.

Team members are well versed in emergency relief, bringing experience from the battlefields of Gaza last winter, Lebanon in 2006 and Somalia, as well as natural disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 and Mauritania's floods in 2007. Arab countries are becoming ever more active in sending emergency relief beyond the frontiers of their own region. The UAE has send 145 tonnes of medicine and supplies, Lebanon has sent 28 tonnes of supplies, Jordan has despatched a mobile field hospital and the Kuwaitis have pledged US$1 million (Dh3.67m) and 100 tonnes of food, tents and blankets, according to a UN news agency.

While such war-torn areas as Iraq and the Palestinian territories suggest the Arab world is primarily a beneficiary rather than a contributor of assistance, the Qatari team and peacekeepers from Jordan and Yemen are changing that impression. Jordan's deployment of 900 troops and police makes a sizeable chunk of the UN's peacekeeping force in Haiti, known by its French acronym Minustah, a 9,000-strong mission, sent to bring stability in 2004 after armed gangs and former soldiers ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. The force has been expanded since the earthquake struck.

The UN's blue-helmet troops have run elections, disarmed gun-toting groups and supported the Haitian police, with the bulk of the Jordanian contingent assigned to bring order to Cité Soleil. Jordanian police were out in force last week, teaming up with Indian peacekeepers to seal off the Banque Nationale de Crédit in downtown Port-au-Prince with armoured vehicles and emptying its vaults before looters struck. Three Jordanian peacekeepers - Major Atta Manasir, Maj Asharf Jaiusi and Corp Raed Khawaldeh - were among those killed during the earthquake, which also toppled the headquarters of the UN mission building in the rented-out Hotel Christopher.

The collapse has been dubbed the greatest disaster in the history of the UN, claiming the life of Minustah's civilian chief, the Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, who has been eulogised as a peacekeeper "with the heart of a lion". Back at the Qatari field hospital, patients cry out in pain as Khaleeji doctors perform delicate incisions in imperfect conditions - but were finally receiving the assistance they have needed for many days. But for Dr Ali, a father of three, his flying visit to Haiti is not enough.

"It makes me proud that Qatar is giving support to these poor people - but, sadly, I think things are going to get worse and worse here," he said. "They have nothing left. We are here for this week, but next week, next month, what are they going to do? Who will dress their wounds then?"