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Haiti Election Riots Hobble Relief Groups

Russ Jones | Christian Press | Monday, December 13, 2010

Haiti Election Riots Hobble Relief Groups

From a distance, Samaritan's Purse workers can see pillars of smoke rising into the air from burning tires. The haze covers Haiti's capitol city, Port-au-Prince. Unrest continues in the streets as angry Haitians overturn cars, throw rocks and set fires, all in protest of the Nov. 28 election results.

This scene is all too familiar for those who have experienced Haiti's turbulent history. Similar protests erupted in November amid allegations that a U.N. peacekeeper transported the bacteria that causes cholera, a disease that has killed 2,000 people in recent weeks.

Now, protesters are demonstrating against recent election results. Government officials have come under fire from presidential hopefuls for alleged widespread voter fraud. Police fired rounds of tear gas into crowds of election protestors in front of the capitol last week, complicating already difficult travel conditions. Medical teams fighting the cholera outbreak have difficulty reaching patients, and rebuilding projects are have slowed significantly as they await directions from a chaotic government.

Transportation Issues

In October an outbreak of cholera ravaged through parts of Haiti which has now killed over 2,000 people. Samaritan's Purse staff now faces even more challenges in treating patients, as those infected can't make it through the riot-filled streets to clinics. Barricades and rioting are causing delays for Samaritan's Purse medical teams getting to cholera treatment centers.

"There is difficulty moving around and it is nearly impossible to get around inside the city [Port-au-Prince]," said Matt Ellingson, country director for Samaritan's Purse Haiti. "Even out in the rural communities there is unrest in the streets and blockages in the road."

Tap-tap cabs, which serve as mass transportation in Haiti, are no longer running with regularity. One Haitian nurse with the ministry took a motorcycle taxi instead. Along the route the driver was thrown off his bike and beaten violently. Thugs threatened the nurse, but stopped when they saw her Samaritan's Purse badge and allowed her and the driver to continue.

"We have some heroic doctors and nurses from all over the world, including Haiti, that are really serving people in their moment of need right now and we need more," Ellingson said.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accompanied Samaritan's Purse president and founder Rev. Franklin Graham to the country over the weekend. Last year, Palin joined Graham to hand out food parcels to families in Native Alaskan villages facing hunger because of a harsh winter.

"I appreciate her willingness to visit Haiti during such troubled times," Graham said. "I believe Gov. Palin will be a great encouragement to the people of Haiti and to the organizations, both government and private, working so hard to provide desperately needed relief."

Pray for Rain

One Christian organization is encouraging people to pray for rain to curb the violence.

"Pray for rain because Haitians don't like to get wet. If we could have a really hard rain, it would drive everyone back into their homes," said Eva DeHart with For Haiti with Love.

DeHart said citizens are angry with the perception that outgoing President Renee Preval hand-picked his successor.

"The general consensus is that the ballot boxes were stuffed, and the people that they voted for were not announced. The population feels like they wanted a specific set of people to make a total difference in the government, and that's not who [Preval] said won."

Lock Down

While DeHart prays for rain, Compassion International USA personnel are locked down in a hotel. Three team members on special assignment were in Haiti to install water filtration systems when rioting broke out. With Compassion's Haiti office closed until tensions lessen, the group's outreach efforts have stalled.

Kathy Redmond, director of communication of Compassion International, said the situation in Haiti is complicated and the rioting is reflective of a deeper concern.

"The frustration level with the Haitian people is very high," Redmond said. "The NGOs have received all this donated money, but the people aren't seeing progress."

With contested elections, tensions and frustrations are likely to continue. No one knows which candidates are legitimately eligible for a run-off vote, as reports conflict.

Preval has been accused of funneling votes to Jude Celestin, his hand-picked candidate. Popular singer Michel Martelly, who is widely supported by Haitians, is only 6,800 votes behind Celestin - less than one percent. Other reports have 70-year-old former first lady Mirlande Manigat, the wife of former President Leslie Manigat, with the second most votes. A run-off of the top two candidates is scheduled for Jan. 16.

Haiti's next president will oversee a record-breaking $10 billion in reconstruction aid pledged by international donors, leading some political observers to speculate about the timing of the elections. Haitians might have been better served keeping the current leadership in place as the embattled nation deals with the outbreak of cholera and earthquake recovery efforts.

Redmond said the cycle of confusion impedes reconstruction and improvement. NGOs like Compassion can't proceed with rebuilding without codes in place, but enforcement of such codes depends on a functional government.

"As long as there are no codes and people are protesting in the streets over the elections, NGOs can't help the people - whether it be the need for water filtration or treatment for cholera," said Redmond. "I don't think most Americans understand how difficult the situation is in Haiti right now."

Russ Jones is an award winning journalist and co-publisher of Christian Press Newspaper (ChristianPress.com) freelance journalist based in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Total Living Network, Travel with Spirit and American Family Radio Network. He may be reached at [email protected].