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Ban Ki-moon Visits Haiti: Thousands Still Without Tents

Ban Kimoon Haiti

JONATHAN M. KATZ   03/14/10 11:42 PM ET   AP

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promised Haitians on Sunday that the world has not forgotten the quake-torn nation as it suffers from a shortage of shelter and growing violence in teeming camps for the homeless.

Security issues and the risk of flooding and disease in the squalid tarp-and-tent cities are pressing concerns for governments and international aid groups struggling to help hundreds of thousands of victims of the Jan. 12 disaster, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.

Making his second visit to Haiti since the quake, the U.N. leader met with President Rene Preval and discussed plans for a U.N. donors conference in New York on March 31 to fund Haiti's reconstruction.

Ban said his message to Haiti's government and people is that "even if time passes, the world has not forgotten. The world is always at their side."

Haiti needs money for schools, infrastructure, roads, ports and electricity, Ban said at a news conference.

And "for the foreseeable future, the government will need international assistance simply to cover its payroll," he said. A government statement said the tax department expects to collect only a third of its expected annual take of 13 billion gourdes ($330 million). Duties on imports are the government's main source of income.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said last week that the United Nations is struggling to raise the $1.44 billion needed to help earthquake victims this year. Ban said only 49 percent has been raised.

Preval raised concerns that Haiti's farmers would be hurt by continuing imports of food aid. Already, rice farmers have told The Associated Press they cannot sell their harvest because of rice handouts.

"It was absolutely necessary that international aid arrive" after the earthquake, Preval said, but "we are now in a new reality."

Ban later toured a makeshift camp where more than 45,000 people are living under a tapestry of blue, orange, white and silver tarps and tents sprawled across a valley golf course – emblematic of the mixed results of a $2.2 billion international aid effort.

Behind the tents is a country club that became the base of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division in the days after the disaster. Only a few soldiers are left, but Ban said the withdrawal of U.S. and Canadian troops "will not compromise the mission."

Ban talked with Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers who have been on a stabilization mission in the country since 2004. He said they are doing "an excellent job" providing security, but called on them to work harder to protect women and children.

With no electricity or security, the camps are growing increasingly dangerous at night, particularly for women and girls. Aid workers said a 7-year-old girl raped in the camp was being treated Sunday at its tent hospital.

"We will make every effort to ensure that IDP camps remain safe and secure, most especially for women and children," Ban said, referring to "internally displaced people."

He also visited a hospital and newly opened women's health center run by actor Sean Penn, who has been living nearby since shortly after the disaster. Penn asked the U.N. leader for help in reducing bureaucracy to get more aid to those living in the camp.

Ban said he has become concerned by reports of increasing gang activity. More than 5,000 prisoners fled jails that collapsed or were damaged in the temblor, and only about 200 have been captured. Two European women with the Doctors Without Borders aid group were kidnapped last week and held for five days. It was not clear if a ransom was paid.

Thousands of people in the camp came down from their broken homes in the hills above the capital to be near food and water distributions overseen by the U.S. soldiers. Those distributions, like those run by the U.N. World Food Program and others, were largely a success – though many were marred by small-scale violence and corruption by local officials.

The camp has been a hub of activity by humanitarian groups, with schools, medical clinics and social programs setting up under canvas tents. But the valley is at major risk for floods and landslides when the rainy season starts in earnest next week.

Ban said 60 percent of Haiti's quake homeless have received plastic sheets or tents to protect them from deluges.

"This is not enough," he admitted. "We are a little bit behind schedule but we are moving very quickly." He called for a "better structured" and "much more efficient way" of distributing emergency shelter.

The trouble is that the homeless have nowhere to go. Despite two months of efforts to establish government-run relocation camps on Port-au-Prince's outskirts, not one has yet opened.

Aid groups say they are ready to build but don't have the land. Government officials insist they are making progress on finding sites in closed-door negotiations with private landowners.

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Filed by Jonathan Daniel Harris  |