The Abandoned Old of Haiti

In just about every disaster, it’s the same story: The very young and the very old do more than their share of suffering. It happened in New Orleans after Katrina, during the heat waves in Paris and Chicago–in the so-called industrialized world as well as the developing world.

In Haiti, home to the poorest of the poor, life for the old is always hard. In traditional Haitian culture, the “gran moun,” or elders, are respected and cared for by their families and communities, but dire poverty makes this difficult–and there is no government safety net for Haiti’s elderly.

AP photo

We tend to hear more about the injured and dying children than we do about the elders. While it’s true that a young life cut short may be the most tragic event of all, the human capacity for suffering is the same at every age. That is clear in a devastating article by Alfred de Montesquiou, with accompanying photographs, put out today by the AP. It tells of a group of nursing home residents in Port-au-Prince who are now without water, food, shelter, or medical care, and are basically waiting to die.

The old lady crawls in the dirt, wailing for her pills. The elderly man lies motionless as rats pick at his overflowing diaper. There is no food, water or medicine for the 85 surviving residents of the Port-au-Prince Municipal Nursing Home, barely a mile (1 1/2 kilometers) from the airport where a massive international aid effort is taking shape. “Help us, help us,” 69-year-old Mari-Ange Levee begged Sunday, lying on the ground with a broken leg and ribs. A cluster of flies swarmed the open fracture in her skull.

One man has already died, and administrator Jean Emmanuel said more would follow soon unless water and food arrive immediately. “I appeal to anybody to bring us anything, or others won’t live until tonight,” he said, motioning toward five men and women who were having trouble breathing, a sign that the end was near….

With six residents killed in the quake, the institution now has 25 men and 60 women camped outside their former home. Some have a mattress in the dirt to lie on. Others don’t.

As it was during Katrina, fear of violence from desperate residents seems to be impeding the aid effort in Haiti. It turned out after Katrina that many reports of violence were false or exagerrated–but the panic they caused cost many lives. Only time will tell whether the same is true in Haiti. But time is something this group of elders does not have.

Though very little food aid had reached Haitians anywhere by Sunday, Emmanuel said the problem was made worse at the nursing home because it is located near Place de la Paix, an impoverished downtown neighborhood.

Thousands of homeless slum dwellers have pitched their makeshift tents on the nursing home’s ground, in effect shielding off the elderly patients from the outside world with a tense maize of angry people, themselves hungry and thirsty.

“I’m pleading for everyone to understand that there’s a truce right now, the streets are free, so you can come through to help us,” said Emmanuel, 27, one of the rare officials not to have fled the squalor and mayhem. He insisted that foreign aid workers wouldn’t be in danger if they tried to cross through the crowd to reach the elderly group….

Jacqueline Thermiti, 71,…was surprisingly feisty for someone who hadn’t eaten since Tuesday. She attributed that to experience with hunger during earlier hardships. “But I was younger, and now there’s no water either,” she said. She predicted that unlike other pensioners, she could still hold out for at least another day.

“Then if the foreigners don’t come [with aid],” she said, “it will be up to baby Jesus.”

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