February 1, 2010 was slated as the first major food distribution in Haiti following the earthquake. Sure, there had been food basket distributions on small scales prior, but this was going to be the biggest undertaking by the World Food Programme in Haiti to date. It was planned to be over the course of two weeks in multiple locations throughout the country reaching over 2 million people. As it was food, this required extreme special planning and security. Each organization would be given an area of operation and then find a suitable location to conduct the actual distribution. We were given an area in somewhere in Delmas 5 and had found a suitable location in an empty lot to conduct the distributions. However, it was not as easy as just picking the lot, showing up and handing out food. There were things to do once we had the location in order to secure it and plan our security strategy.
First, we had to meet with the landowner and secure permission to use the land from him. The lot was part of a church property, so the owner, being a pastor had no issues. Then we had to negotiate terms with the local council and Mayor of Delmas to be allowed to distribute in his district. Naturally, in Haiti, corruption is rampant and concessions had to be made…every NGO has to deal with this, even today. Then we had to plan physical security and distribute the vouchers. The vouchers were little coupons that were given to each family that would be receiving the food items. As you can guess, there were more vouchers on distribution days than food, but I will get to that.
On the security side, each of the eight NGO’s participating would be given two armed security details, one from the US military and the other from MINUSTAH, the UN. MINUSTAH was made up of the following countries who provided military support (soldiers): Argentina (558 including a field hospital), Bolivia (208), Brazil (2,200), Canada (10), Chile (499), Croatia (3), Dominican Republic (4), Ecuador (67), France (2), Indonesia (167), Guatemala (118), Jordan (728), Nepal (1,075), Paraguay (31), Peru (209), the Philippines (157), Sri Lanka (959), United States (4), and Uruguay (1,135).
This meant that each NGO would get a composition of one US Military detail and one from any of the above UN support units. I have to put this into context for this particular story, on July 6, 2005 there was the “Cite Soleil Massacre”, which involved the Brazilian and Jordanian forces of MINUSTAH. The Brazilians were already disliked by the Haitians, and now the Jordanians were equally unpopular, which was a concern. None of us wanted a trigger-happy detachment to provide our security during the largest food distribution of its kind, especially when Murphy love to play in Haiti.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, of 19 supporting units from MINUSTAH, we got the short end of it, we wound up with the Jordanians, who I think were disliked more than the Brazilians, even though the debate is open to the circumstances around the 2005 massacre. It could also be because of the February 2007 Cite Soleil incident where two Jordanian soldiers were killed and more violence ravaged the small gang territory.
At any rate, we had to think quickly on how we wanted to set up our distribution site and place our armed actors. We had no issue with the Americans being somewhat visible, but we absolutely did not want our MINUSTAH detail to be visible. So, with some creative thinking, we placed our American contingent across the street from our distribution site behind the wall of a vacant home. During the distribution, one could see the odd soldier poke his head up to monitor. There was also a mobile team 500 meters down the street and another across in a laneway.
Fortunately, the distribution site was large and backed by trees filling space between the open area and the church behind. We decided to instruct our Jordanian friends to make themselves comfortable on the other side of the tree line and enjoy their tea. This hid them very well and no one was the wiser. The advantage was that both the Americans and the Jordanians were a radio call away should we need them…always call the American’s first! We also had the Haitian National Police, who were our immediate physical presence to assist with the queuing and manage the entry point.
When the distributions started, we were all given timings that we were told to follow. These timings were given by WFP and were really goofy. They wanted all the distributions to be a coordinated effort, starting at 0800 for each of the distribution days. Problem was that the food arrived at 0600 and was downloaded by 0630 and the trucks gone. Here we were at 0630, standing in a field with 500 bags of rice and a lineup of eager, hungry Haitians longer than any I have seen at Disneyland. The other caveat, no men were allowed to receive the benefit, only the female head of household…so the men could only meet the women as the exited to help with their take.
This was a riot in the making and we had to once again think quickly. It was decided that since our security details had been in place since 0530 (to protect the downloading) and the beneficiaries were there, that we would start. We initiated our distributions by 0700 each day of the 14-day period to mitigate any possible threat of stampede. Oh, the stampedes did occur, every day, but not until we were down to the last 20 or so bags of rice, then it was on, absolute mayhem. Not to say we did not have incidents in the middle, we had several, mostly involving the PNH. I will get to that shortly.
The stampedes were a result of a couple of factors, one I mentioned earlier, the food vouchers, or coupons. These were simple pieces of paper with the CARE stamp and name of household, nothing much more than that. The first few days, they were the same, in every way, so as you can guess, not hard to counterfeit. And who was the chief counterfeiter? Yes, the mayor, who would have a team make up more and hand them out on the day of distribution to those who were not legitimate beneficiaries. We caught on and were able to make changes, such as color differentiation for days, but still this did not stop the problem, but it reduced it.
One note I should make is that one evening during this period, I had decided to go to a restaurant across the street from our office, this was after Alex had left. The restaurant had recently re-opened for business, so I figured it would be nice to eat something different. I enjoyed a Mexican style burrito, a beer and a piece of pie for desert. Think of what is in a burrito, beans, shredded chicken, cheese and mayonnaise. Not thinking, remember 4 hours sleep per night, I thought this was delightful, not taking into consideration that refrigeration was not reliable. What happens to mayonnaise when it is not properly refrigerated, yes, it goes bad!
Well, was I not sick for three straight days. I seriously thought I was done for and ready to meet the almighty! To this day, I have no idea how I did not miss a single day of distributions! I would go and help set up, give daily briefs to my security details, making sure the Jordanians had plenty of tea, and then I would crawl into the back of a truck and collapse. After the distribution was done, my team ensured I was properly hydrated, medicated me and I passed out on a balcony.
At some point, I rejoined the living and was able to actually participate more. One thing I learned, do not get in the way of a Haitian police officer when he is angry. We had once incident where the crowd was really pushing on the entrance and a police officer fell back and was slightly trampled. When he got up, I had no idea where he found the stick, but he swung it with such fury beating people with it. It almost struck me as I tried to intervene, and thankfully other police officers were able to restrain him from doing any further damage.
During one of our briefings with our security detail, I noticed a soldier wearing the USMC 2 Marine Division patch on his sleeve. I thought it odd to see an 82 Airborne trooper with this patch, so I approached the soldier, who turned out to be a captain, and as he turned, we immediately recognized each other. Small as the world is, we both served in the Marine Corps in the late 1980’s and released around the same time. He had rejoined the army after 15 years but wore the patch as it was who we were assigned combat duty with during the first gulf war.
Our daily distributions ended each day just before 0800, just as everyone else was starting as to the WFP start times. We would pass some of them on our way back to the office and enjoyed a good breakfast before continuing with our day. Following the final day of our part of the distributions, we all decided we needed a break. For me it was 20 days, for some 30+ days, and we were spent. For two days, we found one of Haiti’s exotic locations…
Next – Day of Relaxation