Violence flares amid desperate hunt for food

Supplies scarce, hundreds swarm ruined warehouse

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / January 19, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Almost a week after a massive earthquake destroyed his house, his school, and his car, Daniel Saint-Hilaire ran out of food yesterday.

Packages of aid flowing into the battered nation had not reached his home in the district of Carrefour, so he grabbed a backpack and walked two hours to the capital in hopes of finding groceries. Instead, he stood dazed before a giant heap of rubble on the main boulevard downtown, staring at his only option: Join the swarm of people looting food at a collapsed warehouse.

“I’m a professional,’’ said Saint-Hilaire, a gracious, soft-spoken father of two who said he owns a computer school in Carrefour, speaking through a translator. “I never thought that I would be here.’’

Hundreds of people desperate for food and supplies swarmed downtown Haiti yesterday, climbing atop piles of broken rubble and shards of glass to get to canned goods, powdered milk, and batteries buried underneath. On the main boulevard, the Grand Rue, their desperation flared into violence at times as teenage boys and men scuffled over goods, and some sparred with sticks. Police fired warning shots into the air but were powerless to halt them.

Yesterday, most in the crowd focused only on finding food. They included laborers, old men and women, and street vendors who said they were hungry and running out of time. Although the stream of aid pouring into the capital continued to grow, there were few signs yesterday that it was trickling down to the street level.

On the Grand Rue, men and women in desperate straits rummaged frantically through the debris of a ruined warehouse, stuffing their burlap bags with staples to bring home to their families. As they worked, some in the crowd carried scrap wood to protect themselves from people who tried to steal their goods, and kept an eye out for police. A dead body lay on top of the rubble.

Some foragers emerged with intact products, but one elderly man raced off with boxes of chicken patties that had been lying unrefrigerated for six days. The damp box said “Keep Frozen.’’

“There’s no food,’’ said Joel Honorat, a 34-year-old trombone player in a band called Take Off, as he stood before the former warehouse. “If the government told us where we should stand to get food, we would stand quietly to get food. We’re trying to find something to eat.’’

Down the street, a group of men rummaging through a different shop that had broken open in the 7.0 earthquake looked up in surprise when a reporter asked if they were looters.

“No, no, no, no,’’ they said in unison. They said they were looking for canned food to eat, and anything they could use to barter or sell.

Daniel Dominique, a 28-year-old air conditioner repairman, emptied his pockets to prove that he was not a thief. Out came a Bible covered in soft blue vinyl, with family photos inside, a battered cellphone, and a white handkerchief.

“If I were a thief, I would break down those doors,’’ Dominique said outside the shop, gesturing to a closed business across the street. “This is open.’’

Later, the panicked foragers turned into a mob running down the Grand Rue. As gunfire popped behind him, Luckner Prosper, a 28-year-old in a Dodgers T-shirt, ducked behind a crumbling concrete pillar, sweating and out of breath. He was carrying a car battery to see if he could jerry-rig some power at night.

“We don’t have any lights,’’ said Prosper, a juice vendor who said he has two children and is sleeping on the street.

From a distance, the scene appeared chaotic. But up close, an organization seemed to unfold. Relatives and friends worked together in groups, often guarded by someone with a stick to prevent thugs from stealing their goods.

Some of those with money used it to pay other people to search the warehouse debris for them, so they would not have to risk it.

Around the corner, store owners, aided by city police, barricaded a side street with pieces of wood so that the owners could take their inventories away to storage.

“I have my whole life in there,’’ said Clerminia Philogene, 46-year-old owner of a cosmetics and clothing store, as her son, Luxon, 27, stood by. “I have nothing more.’’

Back on the Grand Rue, the crowd swelled as the day dragged on. Asked about the danger of buildings collapsing further amid aftershocks, many people just shrugged and shook their heads, pointing to their stomachs.

Some were so hungry that they immediately started to munch on chips or crackers they had scavenged.

Charlottin Betine, a 25-year-old woman with dust-matted hair, carefully sipped from a can of Nestle sweet condensed milk, which she shared with her cousin. In a burlap bag, she carried a single can of King Bell tuna.

“We have money but no food; we lost everything,’’ said Betine, who said she was a prostitute. She smiled shyly when asked about the string of plastic black pearls around her neck. “That’s all I have [left].’’

All yesterday morning, police and United Nations authorities drove down the Grand Rue, past the swarm on the pile. For a while, two police officers stood guard, and occasionally smacked someone away with a stick. One UN truck filmed the crowd foraging on the hill.

A national police officer, who waved his stick at people gently, said they were trying to prevent people from getting hurt, and to protect the inventory of businesses that were not damaged.

“If it’s open like this, I’m not bothering them,’’ said the officer, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak, as he pointed to a shop with the door popped open. “We’re trying to clear this [area] because we don’t want it to fall down.’’

Across the street, a small group of men hacked at a water pipe in the ground, to gather the clear water in dusty pails. Many residents urged aid workers to get the food and water to them directly.

“Otherwise,’’ said Dominique, the air conditioner repairman, “it will never get to us.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at