Tags: Marines | US | Haiti | supplies

U.S. Marines Focus on Moving Aid Supplies

Sunday, 24 Jan 2010 10:35 PM

LEOGANE, Haiti — Surrounded by a sugar cane plantation and herds of emaciated cows, about a hundred US marines secure the perimeter of a new heliport set up just in the middle of a Haitian plain.

The heliport is designed to receive humanitarian aid. But one marine officer complains it takes too much time for the packages to leave the area.

Sitting on a pile of food rations, Lieutenant Michael Fee explains how the aid distribution system works.

US marines offload relief supplies and secure the area and then give the aid to the United Nations, he says. Non-governmental organizations then take charge of aid delivery while the United Nations and Canadians secure its distribution.

"It's a web of people to get the aid out," Fee complains. "It is too complicated. That's why there is this backlog."

Meanwhile, time in Leogane is of the essence. Located about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the capital of Port-au-Prince, the town was right in the epicenter of the January 12 earthquake, and 90 percent of its buildings were left in ruins.

And while the bulk of international aid is directed toward Port-au-Prince, US marines have decided to focus their rescue efforts on this community straddling an important road leading south.

A few dozen famished Haitians lurk around the guarded heliport, eyeing with envy containers with water and packages with food stamped USA.

But it is impossible to organize food distribution here, explains Lieutenant Fee.

"All we found to land is this area," he says. "If we were organizing distribution here, the landing zone would be crowded and it would stop the air flow. People have been very understanding given the amount of aid that's sitting in front of them."

Interpreters hired by the US military try to explain to the curious that food will be distributed to people -- just in a different location.

Some marines feel sorry not to be able to distribute the supplies themselves. But there are reasons behind this order.

"If I give a woman a bottle of water and a guy shows up and hits her, I can't engage him or detain him," argues Corporal Nicolas Hefley. "I don't have the right to."

A UN truck appears at about 10:00 am. Speaking broken English, "blue helmets" from Sri Lanka try to understand why they have to begin their distribution with water purification tablets.

"People here are poor, not educated. They don't understand how to use this. They can't read," argues Chief Petty Officer Bandara Nuwan Galath of the Sri Lankan navy, who serves here as part of a UN stabilization force. "All they want is food and water."

But this attitude makes US Gunnery Sergeant Joshua Wruble, a veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan, impatient.

"I am telling you to take these tablets. Do you understand?" he snarls at the UN troops.

The sergeant says he appreciates the opportunity to help Haitians in need, but admits that humanitarian missions are not exactly his forte.

"You definitely have to transition your mindset," he explains. "You have to take it from one extreme to the other, from combat thrill to compassion."

Wruble is no stranger to Haiti. He first came to the country in 1994, when then-US president Bill Clinton ordered US marines to land there to restore in power president Jean Bertrand Aristide toppled by a 1991 military coup.

"We are here every three to four years," he points out. "The Haitian population has an intimate knowledge of what the marines are about. They respond well to us."

UN troops finish distributing US relief supplies to a nearby orphanage in the afternoon. Once the mission is over, a few boxes remain in the back of the truck. These are water purification tablets.

Separately in Port-au-Prince, UN troops on Saturday fired warning shots and sprayed tear gas on quake survivors after a food delivery to hundreds of them spiraled out of control in the capital.

A spokeswoman for the UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at its operations centre in Geneva said the incident appeared to be isolated, with little violence reported in Haiti.

"It's normal that there would be such isolated incidents due to exasperation and despair," the spokeswoman, Elisabeth Byrs told AFP.

"Such violence is not representative of the Haitian people, the population has been calm and dignified," in the wake of the quake, Byrs said.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Sunday, 24 Jan 2010 10:35 PM
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