Deborah Pasmantier (AFP)
Anger at US builds at Port-au-Prince airport
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Anger built Saturday at Haiti's US-controlled main airport, where aid flights were still being turned away and poor coordination continued to hamper the relief effort four days on.
"Let's take over the runway," shouted one voice. "We need to send a message to (US President Barack) Obama," cried another.
Control remained in the hands of US forces, who face criticism for the continued disarray at the overwhelmed airfield.
Dozens of French citizens and dual Haitian-French nationals crowded the airport Saturday seeking to be evacuated after Tuesday's massive 7.0 earthquake, which leveled much of the capital Port-au-Prince.
But at the last minute, a plane due to take them to the French island of Guadeloupe was prevented from landing, leaving them to sleep on the tarmac, waiting for a way out.
"They're repatriating the Americans and not anyone else," said Charles Misteder, 50. "The American monopoly has to end. They are dominating us and not allowing us to return home."
The crowd accused American forces, who were handed control of the airport by Haitian authorities, of monopolizing the airfield's single runway to evacuate their own citizens.
The US embassy denied it was putting the evacuation of the approximately 40,000 to 45,000 American citizens in the country first.
Others waiting for a way out were taken aback by the chaotic scenes confronted them when they arrived at the Toussaint L'Ouverture airport.
"I haven't been able to tell my family that I'm alive. The coordination is a joke," said Wilfried Brevil, a 33-year-old housekeeper.
"I was at the Christopher Hotel," said Daniele Saada, referring to the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti, MINUSTAH.
"I was extremely shaken up. I was pulled out, the others weren't," added Saada, 65, a MINUSTAH employee.
"I decided to return to France. I have nothing and now I am stuck," she said, caught between fury at the chaos and sheer exhaustion.
The disorder even appeared to cause diplomatic ripples, with French Secretary of State for Cooperation Alain Joyandet telling reporters he had lodged a complaint with the United States over its handling of the Port-au-Prince airport.
"I have made an official protest to the Americans through the US embassy," he said at the Haitian airport after a French plane carrying a field hospital was turned away.
A spokesman for the French foreign ministry later denied France had registered protest, saying "Franco-US coordination in emergency aid for Haiti is being handled in the best way possible given the serious difficulties."
The US ambassador to Haiti defended American efforts at the small airport, which was up-and-running 24 hours after the massive quake, even though the air traffic control tower was damaged.
"We're working in coordination with the United Nations and the Haitians," said Ambassador Kenneth Merten, though he acknowledged some difficulties.
"Clearly it's necessary to prioritize the planes. It's clear that there's a problem."
Despite the chaos, a group of French citizens was eventually able to take off on Saturday, and the French plane carrying a field hospital landed safely around noon.
Still, with aid continuing to flood into the quake-stricken country, concern remains about the lack of coordination at the airport, and across devastated Port-au-Prince.
"The Haitians haven't been notified about the arrival of planes. And when they do land, there's no one to take charge and a large amount of goods are arriving without coordination," said Haitian government official Michel Chancy.
On Port-au-Prince's streets, the consequences of the coordination breakdown are clear, as traumatized and starving quake survivors approached passing foreigner and begged them for food.