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American Forces Press Service

Record Crowds Cause Unrest at Distribution Point

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 20, 2010 – You could hear the crowd before you could see it.

From the top of the hill that serves as a landing zone for disaster relief here, the crowd looked massive, the largest yet at this U.S. military relief point. It spanned the base of the hill, stretching into the wooded areas to the east and west and sprawled deep into the survivor camp to the north. The calls and cries and dust from the crowd rose into the air as the desperation hit a high.

The end of the day was near and it was obvious that many would leave empty-handed.
It took the soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment here, alongside many local Haitian volunteers, several attempts to calm the crowd. It came dangerously close at times to spilling past the makeshift perimeter set up by the soldiers.

A handful of elderly women were pulled from the crowd, overcome by the heat and the dust.

Local Haitians walked the line with bullhorns trying to talk the crowd of women into sitting down but those in the back continued to push forward. The soldiers and volunteers on the perimeter at times held hands to form a human chain to hold the crowd back.

Those passing out the food and water simply sat down, stopping the distribution, as a sign to the crowd that as long as they did not cooperate, they would get nothing.

Eventually the crowd calmed and the distribution restarted, but the event was a likely premonition of relief efforts to come as the military here works to increase the number and push these points farther into the city.

“Just that many people in a confined area you’re going to get a little pushing and shoving. And you can understand. They’re hurting for food and water,” said Army Capt. Jon Hartsock, the commander in charge of the daily distribution here.

Keeping it civil is the challenge, he said. The captain is not concerned about the locals trying to hurt his troops, but if the crowd gets out of control, some of the locals could be injured.

And, in the end, the stronger would receive the aid, and the weaker would do without.

“I don’t want this turning into a free for all, throwing water and food and letting them fend for themselves. I want it to be orderly,” he said.

Part of the problem, officials said, is that word is getting out around Port-au-Prince that this is the place to come for food and water. Yesterday’s estimate put 25,000 people at the base of the hill waiting for some sort of relief.

The troops passed out more than 25,000 bottles of water and nearly 8,000 meals. All totaled in the few days the troops have been here they have passed out nearly 50,000 bottles of water and almost 15,000 meals.

To avoid yesterday’s crush on the distribution point, Hartsock wants to put distribution points away from the forward operating base here, initially into the survivor camp, and then beyond into the city. Already troops have taken food and water to a distribution point at a community center in the city.

Hartsock meets today with a loosely formed “tent city council” made up of a local preacher who has been holding services there at night, and four leader volunteers. The group has agreed to divide the camp evenly and manage the distribution from there.

This fits well in Hartsock’s plan to put the distribution in the hands of the Haitians.

“We want them distributing food. Our soldiers are out here just to maintain order on the lines,” he said.

Hartsock will finalize plans today and visit the proposed sites for distribution. He hopes to be able to start moving the food and water there in the next few days.

There are still details to be worked, but most likely the soldiers will move the goods in the non-peak hours and stay to secure the distribution.

Distribution between the points will be simultaneous and will actually go faster, Hartsock said.

“There’s more of a chance that the food and water will get out to everybody,” he said. “Because right now, it’s just the people at the front of the line.”

When it comes to Hartsock’s military career, he said this is one of the most challenging jobs he’s been assigned. While deployed to Iraq he ran small humanitarian missions, but nothing to this scale.

“Every day we learn something new out here,” he said. “We’ve tried different things. Sometimes it goes smooth. Sometimes it doesn’t go smooth and it’s about adjusting.”

“It’s hard because one second I’m feeling good … and other times it’s frustrating.”

This mission is also difficult, because there is no enemy. And, because many of the soldiers have families, the cries of the women and children do not fall on deaf ears.

“I’ve had to tell my soldiers to turn away the little boy who jumps to the head of the line. And that’s tough,” Hartsock said. “But it’s something that we’ve got to do because if we let that one, then the next one and the next one and the next one [will jump the line] and then it’s just chaos.”

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