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Haitians desperate to find their dead for proper burial

Families seek closure 13 days after killer quake

Jean-Louis Nord, a friend of the Lochard family, helped search for bodies through the rubble of their home yesterday in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Jean-Louis Nord, a friend of the Lochard family, helped search for bodies through the rubble of their home yesterday in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Gerald Herbert/ Associated Press)
By Ben Fox
Associated Press / January 26, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - In what is left of one family’s home, in what remains of one destroyed neighborhood, Jean-Rene Lochard has retrieved the bodies of his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew and buried them beside the ruins, one by one and with a priest’s blessing.

Yesterday, he dug deeper, searching for his brother’s 5-year-old son. Only when he finds the boy will he rest.

“I need the body to bury him,’’ he said. “It’s important to bury the bodies.’’

With 150,000 bodies already in mass graves, international teams, grieving families, sympathetic neighbors, and sometimes even strangers were pulling at the rubble with tools or bare hands in countless corners of this devastated city.

Thirteen days after the killer earthquake, they were desperate to recover some of the thousands of Port-au-Prince’s lost dead - to close each tragic circle, to lay loved ones in the earth to rest in peace.

For the living - the homeless spread across empty lots, parks, and plazas in the hundreds of thousands - there was little rest as aid agencies struggled to fill their needs for food and water, and to get them tents to shelter their families against the burning tropical sun.

In front of the wrecked National Palace, people’s desperation boiled over. Uruguayan UN peacekeepers had to fire pepper spray into the air to try to disperse thousands jostling for food.

The overwhelmed soldiers finally retreated, and young men rushed forward to grab the bags of pinto beans and rice, emblazoned with the US flag, pushing aside others - including a pregnant woman who collapsed and was trampled. Thousands were left without food.

In the surrounding Champs de Mars plaza, a sea of homeless covered the open ground, many with nothing more than a plastic sheet to protect them from sun and rain.

“We live like dogs,’’ said Espiegle Amilcar, 34. “We’re sleeping, eating, and going to the bathroom in the same place.’’

Officials estimated that 235,000 have taken advantage of the government offer of free transport to leave the city, and many others left on their own. That leaves about 700,000 other people living on the streets around Port-au-Prince under whatever they can salvage.

The global agency supplying tents said it already had 10,000 stored in Haiti and at least 30,000 more would be arriving. But, said the International Organization for Migration, “the supply is unlikely to address the extensive shelter needs.’’

The organization had estimated 100,000 family-sized tents were needed. But the UN says up to 1 million people require shelter, and President Rene Preval issued an urgent appeal yesterday for 200,000 tents and for the aircraft carrying them to be given urgent landing priority at Port-au-Prince airport.

Preval, who lost his house in the disaster, plans to move into a tent on the lawn of the destroyed National Palace, said Patrick Delatour, the tourism minister and official in charge of planning reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the Haitian government and international groups were preparing a more substantial tent city on Port-au-Prince’s outskirts. Brazilian army engineers with the UN peacekeeping force here have cleared and leveled 12 acres at the site north of the city, planned as the first of more than a half-dozen that officials hope will shelter the displaced before the onset of spring rains and summer hurricanes.

Returning from Haiti, international Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said in Geneva that a new Port-au-Prince must be planned. “It’s going to require, minimum, a generation,’’ he said, adding that the need for heavy equipment to tear down damaged buildings was growing.

That prospect was what was driving Jean-Rene Lochard to dig harder, with the help of neighbors and hired workers, to find his little nephew in the collapsed six-story home, an enormous pile of cracked concrete and twisted metal bars in Port-au-Prince’s western district of Carrefour-Feuilles.

“The contractors are going to come and smash everything else, so we want to find him first,’’ Lochard, 42, said as he sat amid the remains of a family’s life - shoes, bits of clothing, a small red Elmo doll.

When the magnitude-7.0 quake struck on Jan. 12, Lochard recalled, “I was going crazy,’’ because the house completely collapsed around him as he dashed outside. Eight of the 14 family members who lived there died.

He and others quickly rescued an injured 17-year-old niece, and then, four days after the quake, a 5-year-old nephew, Samael.

Some still held out hope of finding people alive, two days after the last reported rescue. “There’s still hope. We think that people could still be alive,’’ Mexican search team chief Hector Mendez said.

There are 54 confirmed American dead in Haiti, and US officials were seeking to confirm 36 other possible deaths, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.