Battle for life amid stench of death

Doctors and nurses are warning of a shortage of staff and supplies to treat the wounded in Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // The graffiti-daubed walls of the main hospital in Haiti's devastated capital, where hundreds of injured earthquake victims await treatment, bear the Creole words: "Jesus ap retounen" (Jesus will return). The fly-ridden corpses piled beside the slogan suggest this city of some three million is far from salvation, following a magnitude-7.0 earthquake that left tens of thousands dead and 1.5 million homeless.

Staff at the city's General Hospital, only a few hundred metres from the collapsed presidential palace and justice ministry, estimate that 2,000 quake victims have passed through their doors with broken bones, bruises and lacerations. But with only 50 doctors and nurses turning up for shifts and medical supplies running out, they warn it is becoming increasingly difficult to treat the wounded and call upon aid agencies to deliver.

Scores of casualties lie in the centre of the hospital compound under a grassy shelter of palm trees and foliage: an oasis of misery, complete with screams from wailing children and cries of quake victims having their tender wounds dressed. They lie in the tropical heat on borrowed mattresses, pieces of foam and scraps of cardboard; sheets tied to trees shield them from the sunshine. Filthy, bloodstained bandages are tied limply around their festering wounds.

"Right now I can feel the pain and I need a nurse to give me some medication," said Alcius Christo, 28, his legs bound and broken after Tuesday's earthquake sent his bus careering into a wall. "A nurse was here, but she left, saying she was too tired to help any more." The overflowing morgue adjoining the hospital offers a grim reminder to the dangers of gangrenous infections, with an estimated 1,500 rotting bodies piled on top of each other releasing a stench of death throughout the compound.

It resembles a hell-scene by the painter Hieronymus Bosch, with arms tightened with rigor mortis pointing skyward and bloated bellies peeling back layers of clothing to expose bare flesh to the baking sunlight. With telephone lines unreliable, anguished Haitians paced around the heaped bodies with cotton wool plugging their nostrils, searching for friends and loved ones they have not seen since the earthquake levelled about a third of the capital's buildings.

Red Cross estimates are that 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed but the prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said a final toll of 100,000 dead would "seem to be the minimum". Yesterday, the US president, Barack Obama, recruited the former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush to lead private fund-raising while Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was expected to arrive in the devastated country.

"On one hand you have relatives looking for their family members, and on the other there are unidentified bodies - we are trying to link them up," said Pierre Barras, part of a Red Cross contingent that aims to unite families with lost members. Alix Lassegue, the hospital's director, said Haiti had witnessed many earthquakes and disasters in the 26 years he has worked there, but the demands of last week's quake were clearly outstripping the supplies of Port-au-Prince's residents.

"Most of our medical staff are considered victims. Maybe their houses fell down or they couldn't reach the hospital," said the 60-year-old. "We have now used up all of the medical supplies from NGOs based in Haiti. We haven't yet received anything from the internationals. I know they are at the airport, but there is no distribution yet. "This is a catastrophe and we are working in a very difficult situation."

Aid workers are increasingly concerned about the supplies of food, fuel and medicines that hit a logjam at the capital's international airport, saying the absence of effective police or military forces has left relief efforts badly uncoordinated. "This is chaos. I've been to all the disasters in the world: Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran, India. They were organised much better - there is no organisation here," said Luc Beaucourt, part of a field medics' team from the Belgian charity V-Med. "Everything is destroyed. The government. There is no military."

Announcing an appeal to raise US$550 million (Dh2billion) on Friday, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that relief operations were "slower and more difficult than any of us would wish". "Logistics are extremely difficult," the South Korean diplomat told reporters. "The airport is open, as you know, but capacity is limited. "A lack of transport and fuel is also hampering efforts. Many roads remain blocked."

The UN mission to Haiti is still reeling from the single worst disaster to befall the world body in its six-decade history, with many staff still unaccounted for following the earthquake, which struck at 4.53pm on Tuesday. The UN reported increasing numbers trying to cross the border into neighbouring Dominican Republic as well as a surge of quake survivors fleeing into Haiti's northern cities. "This is a historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the UN memory. It is like no other," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP in Geneva.

She said a UN team had been to survey the damage in Léogâne, west of the capital, and had found 80-90 per cent of buildings there were damaged or destroyed, with local police estimating up to 10,000 dead in the one town alone. For James Mulis, 46, it is a race against time for medical supplies and doctors to reach the hospital in Port-au-Prince, with his daughter groaning on a hospital bed with untreated wounds to her feet, legs, back and head.

Neighbours had to cut through six steel bars to extricate his 11-year-old child, Wendia, from their flattened family home in the city centre before taking her to the overcrowded grounds of the main hospital. "They wouldn't let her inside the hospital because it is overcrowded - we had to struggle to get the place she has right now," he said from her makeshift bedside in the shade of a tree. "She needs to see a doctor. We've run out of money and need to get some medicine."

The United States Army has taken control of the airport and relief operations. But yesterday the French government protested the US handling of aid flights into Haiti, after a French hospital aircraft was prevented from landing, the secretary of state for co-operation, Alain Joyandet, said. "I have made an official protest to the Americans through the US embassy," Mr Joyandet told reporters at the airport in Port-au-Prince, the main port of entry into the Caribbean nation. A French hospital aircraft was turned back from the international airport on Friday, after a major logjam of dozens of planes carrying rescuers and supplies for survivors.

Yesterday thousands of Haitians flocked out of Port-au-Prince in a swelling exodus. Heading for the provinces to seek shelter with friends or relatives, many simply walked with bags on their heads and shoulders. "I have waited for two days, but nothing has arrived, not even a bottle of water," said Yves Manes, walking slowly towards a route out of the coastal capital with his wife and two children.

Though violence on the streets has been only sporadic, many fear that could change if the situation became even more desperate. All the criminals in Port-au-Prince's main jail have escaped. Desperate rescue attempts were briefly interrupted yesterday when a strong aftershock rocked the city. One such rescue was taking place at a collapsed five-storey supermarket - one of the biggest in Port-au-Prince. Specialist US and Turkish urban rescue teams battled to reach survivors trapped but still alive beneath the rubble. The Caribe Market completely collapsed during the earthquake, burying dozens of shoppers who were inside. Rescuers were talking to a 17-year-old girl called Ariel and a boy with her, who said they were unhurt but thirsty.

"We've found a boy and a girl and we're trying to get them out, we've been cutting holes since Thursday evening," said Charles McDermott, spokesman for a US Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue team from Florida. "They can see sunlight, and at night they can see lights from a radio tower; we just can't see them." * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters