Keeping up a united front for hope

US soldiers, refugees part of aid effort

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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PETIONVILLE, Haiti - Evans Cybrien and his sister Marie struggled to hold an 80-pound sack of food and tried not to stumble as they scurried down a steep hillside and into a refugee camp teeming with 50,000 desperate, hungry people.

Holding opposite ends of the sack Friday early afternoon, grunting and straining, the exhausted Cybriens finally reached the camp, where they dropped their haul amid a crazy quilt of tents, tarps, and clothing strung together to make shelters in every available cranny of a former nine-hole golf course.

“I lost everything,’’ said Evans Cybrien, 55, who looks 20 years older. “My house was destroyed. I have nothing, and I am hungry every day.’’

But Cybrien and his sister managed to smile. They had just been given enough rice, beans, flour, and cooking oil to last a month, as part of a cooperative emergency effort by Catholic Relief Services and the US Army’s 82d Airborne Division.

The Cybriens were the latest beneficiaries of a five-day whirlwind effort to funnel food to tens of thousands of people who have turned one of Haiti’s most affluent country clubs into a place of shocking misery. Although there are an estimated 50,000 refugees in the camp by day, that number is thought to double at night, when tens of thousands of the displaced return from an arduous and often unfruitful search for jobs and money in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

This is humanitarian assistance at its most elementary, the delivery of basic staples to a people who otherwise might starve in the flimsy, unpoliced city they have built for themselves. And it’s an example of rudimentary adaptability by an aid group, the Army, and refugee leaders who have devised a striking, simple way to deliver that assistance.

Helicopters made the green grounds of The Petionville Club - complete with golf course, handball courts, pool, and patio bar - the busiest landing zone in Haiti, outside of the airport. The aircraft have delivered 240 metric tons of food to the club, set on a hilltop with a spectacular view of the city, harbor, and nearby mountains.

The food is poured into 80-pound sacks on the club’s clay tennis courts, trucked to the crest of a steep incline above the golf course. Soldiers then take one in each hand and dragging the sacks, make a pell-mell dash to a cluster of Haitian volunteers waiting on plateau 50 yards below.

There, protected by a platoon of soldiers who ensure that order is maintained, one sack is allotted to each family, which Lane Hartill, a spokesman for Catholic Relief Services, said should be enough to feed a family of five for two weeks.

“I came here to help my people,’’ said Jeanty Loyguy, 22, a distribution volunteer and law student whose university was destroyed by the quake. “They take this food for survival.’’

Catholic Relief Services, which provided the food, sent workers from tent to tent in the camp, handing color-coded tickets to female heads of households in an exhaustive, expansive effort to ensure that aid is fairly distributed. It’s a system that appears to have cut down on fraud and paced the effort, color by color, over five days this week.

The patience of the waiting refugees was stunning. Standing in line for hours in 90-degree weather, pressed hard against one another’s backs, the Haitians did not push, shove, or complain. The nearby presence of American M-4 rifles might be one reason, but there also seems to be a profound sense of community at work here amid the shared, stunning, and staggering loss.

“Every day, they come in here like this,’’ said Tiyeau Simon, 42, another of the volunteers from the tent city. “They are all grateful for the food.’’

The work appears to be a welcome change for the soldiers, many of whom are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s good weather, and we’re doing a good thing for the Haitian people,’’ said Specialist Josh Larsen, 30, a native of Littleton, Mass.

The soldiers get a vigorous workout, as they rush downhill, half-bent at the knees, with their two sacks of food dragging behind them. At the bottom, they turn and sprint back uphill, and repeat the drill.

The hill is used to strategic advantage. With food within sight of thousands of hungry refugees, holding the high ground helps the Army control the scene. At the crest, splayed on the ground or sitting in low-slung chairs, soldiers focus binoculars on the sea of people, trying to spot trouble before it happens. The unit has been careful to weed out potential scam artists from the work crew, said Captain Jon Hartsock, who directs the operation.

After the food is delivered, the patient but blank unsmiling faces of people who have waited in line for hours suddenly turn bright, if only for a few minutes. Eighty pounds seems nothing for many of these refugees, whether balanced on the heads of elderly women or hoisted on the shoulders of skinny teenagers.

“It’s not like we’re giving a family an MRE,’’ referring to the Army’s Meals Ready to Eat rations. “It’s a big honking bag,’’ said Staff Sergeant Stephen Roach.

With a two-week food supply in each sack, the effort is a brief window in which the homeless and the jobless can focus on jobs and rebuilding in the time they otherwise would devote to scavenging for nourishment.

And that, in a country hungry for a crumb of hope, is a small but important victory.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at