Military distributes aid to Chileans

Helps its own first; relief effort starts 4 days after quake

The official death toll from the quake in Chile reached 802 yesterday. Police and troops have managed to quell the looting and violence, enforcing a curfew in some hard-hit areas. The official death toll from the quake in Chile reached 802 yesterday. Police and troops have managed to quell the looting and violence, enforcing a curfew in some hard-hit areas. (Jose Luis Saavedra/ Reuters)
By Michael Warren
Associated Press / March 4, 2010

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CONCEPCIÓN, Chile - Four days after a deadly earthquake, Chile’s military launched a massive humanitarian aid effort yesterday that promised to improve an image long associated with dictatorship-era repression.

Its first delivery went to a neighborhood of military families who already had food.

After days of looting, rifle-toting army troops occupied nearly every block of hard-hit Concepción yesterday, enforcing a curfew with checkpoints throughout the city. With the streets more secure, the troops focused on aid.

Soldiers had worked overnight stuffing flour, canned beans, cooking oil, and tea into hundreds of plastic bags that volunteers loaded into dump trucks for distribution to survivors, many of whom had gone without fresh food or drinking water since Saturday.

The convoy rolled minutes after the curfew expired, the first of many to deploy throughout the disaster area, said Army Lieutenant Colonel Juan Carlos Andrades.

Its first stop: a neighborhood inhabited by military families, next to Army headquarters in Concepción.

“This entire block belongs to the Army,’’ said Yanira Cifuentes, 31, the very first to get aid. She said her husband is an officer.

Cifuentes said the aid was welcome after days of sleeping in tents and sharing food with neighbors over a wood fire. But she also said the neighborhood had not gone hungry because residents had access to food at the regiment.

“Until now we have been OK, sharing everything with each other,’’ she said.

Military officers who refused to give their names insisted that their families were suffering, too, and that many soldiers have been working around the clock since the quake, not knowing how their loved ones fared. Still, it was unclear who ordered the first food delivery to the military housing on General Novoa Avenue.

Army Commander Antonio Besamat said local authorities controlled food distribution, with the armed forces providing only security. Juan Piedra, of the National Emergency Office, said civilian officials report to the military under the terms of the state of emergency President Michelle Bachelet declared.

Some residents were angry not at the troops but at City Hall, which had announced Tuesday that none of the first aid shipments would go to neighborhoods inhabited by people who took goods from ruined stores. Many of those neighborhoods are Concepción’s poorest.

“Aid has to reach those who have nothing first,’’ said Luis Sarzosa, 47, a heavy-equipment operator. “The well-off always get things first, and the people with nothing, they leave to the side.’’

Added Marcela Sarzosa, a 44-year-old homemaker who lives in the Via Futuro slum: “I didn’t loot anything. Who’s going to help me?’’

Survivors had cheered the troops’ arrival and the restoration of order in streets still littered with rubble, downed power lines, and demolished cars. Citizens’ applause has left many soldiers proud of their role in keeping the peace, an unusual feeling for many in Chile’s armed forces during 20 years of democracy.

Since the bloody 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, many Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks. But police were overwhelmed when looting began after the quake, and on Sunday Bachelet took the unprecedented step of declaring an emergency, turning 14,000 soldiers into peacekeepers.

The food distributed yesterday was donated by the Lider Hipermart chain, other businesses, and the government. Transport planes, meanwhile, were delivering more food and troops to Concepción, and military helicopters ferried disaster aid from the city to smaller towns and villages along the Pacific coast that were destroyed by the tsunami. In nearby Talca, a field hospital was erected to relieve pressure on a quake-damaged hospital in Concepción, and officials were distributing 17,000 meal rations.

The magnitude-8.8 quake and tsunami ravaged a 435-mile stretch of Chile’s coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas. The official death toll reached 802 yesterday.