Millions in need in Haiti

As rebels rolled into the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on Monday, faith-based groups vowed to continue addressing an unfolding humanitarian crisis that is impacting millions of people in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 1, 2004

"We have a longstanding presence in Haiti working with ecumenical and grassroots partners."

—Rev. John L. McCullough

As rebels rolled into the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on Monday, faith-based groups vowed to continue addressing an unfolding humanitarian crisis that is impacting millions of people in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Millions of people are going hungry in Haiti as a food crisis caused by flooding and drought is sharpened by recent political violence.

While some Haitian residents cheered the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and others stood by indifferently, U.S. Marines and French troops secured key sites on Monday. The troops are part of a multinational force approved by the U.N. Security Council.

Aristide fled Haiti after a three-week rebel uprising. The crisis has been brewing since Aristide's party swept flawed legislative elections in 2000. Then, more recently, the country's parliament ground to a halt with legislative terms expiring. Aristide's zealously loyal Lavalas Party has been accused of backing gangs to harass protesters.

The recent uprising killed at least 100 people and Haiti's 8 million residents have been plunged into poverty for years.

December flooding ruined maize and cassava harvests in some areas of Haiti. And in parts of northwest Haiti, a prolonged drought resulted in no harvest for four years. Then food aid fell short because distribution of supplies has been dangerous and halted by political violence.

But response to these grave needs will be strengthened by longstanding programs already in place in Haiti, according to leaders of Church World Service (CWS) and other response groups.

A CWS liaison met with leaders from other faith-based groups in the Dominican Republic to discuss response to potential needs in Haiti.

CWS met with two local partners, Social Service of Community Churches and Grupo de Pastores Interdenominacionales, to finalize a contingency plan for services to Haitian refuge seekers that could include temporary shelter, food, water and healthcare.

CWS also met with Red Cross officials, members of the Roman Catholic Church and Dominican Republic government officials, and representatives of the Haitian government. In addition, the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program has identified services it can provide to Haitian refugees who might be interdicted at sea and taken to the Guantanamo (Cuba) facility as they leave Haiti by sea seeking refugee elsewhere.

CWS reports indicated similar contingency plans are being developed with partners in other neighboring countries. CWS has also undertaken advocacy efforts with United States government agencies, foreign ambassadors to Haiti and ecumenical partners within Haiti, calling on all parties to engage in dialogue and negotiation.

CWS Executive Director the Rev. John L. McCullough called CWS participation in the current refugee response "a continuation of support for in-country Haitians and Haitian asylum seekers coming to the U.S.

"We have a longstanding presence in Haiti," McCullough added, "working with ecumenical and grassroots partners. And through our Miami office we have been vigilant advocates for just treatment of Haitian asylum seekers and detainees."

In March 2003, CWS hosted the Haitian Migration Crisis Conference in Washington, D.C. The forum gathered government, humanitarian advocates and policymakers who pressed for a turnaround in discriminatory treatment of Haitian asylum seekers.

McCullough, in a letter of solidarity to Haitian partners, urged churches to promote peace.

"We call upon the churches of Haiti to step into the role of peacemakers and mediators. Now more than ever the Church and its supporting institutions are called upon to be instruments of peace to calm disrupted communities, help displaced families, and unceasingly speak truth to power," he wrote. "We urge you to continue working to relieve the mass scale suffering of the people of Haiti, and never faltering in bringing food to the hungry, hope to the children, and light into the darkness."

Leaders from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) also urged people to pray for peace in Haiti.

The Rev. Raphael Dessieu, President of the Eglise Metodiste d'Haiti, called the current situation in the country "a great human catastrophe."

Only local workers remain at the Methodist Guest House, which was closed last week. All United Methodist Volunteers in Mission teams have left Haiti. UMCOR supports several projects in Haiti, including a hot lunch program for the Methodist schools, Grace Children's Hospital, and community agriculture programs.

Members of Action by Churches Together (ACT) a global coalition of faith-based relief organizations was working with four church-based agencies in Haiti that will purchase medicines with an emergency grant provided by ACT members. CWS, Lutheran World Relief and UMCOR are members of ACT, along with many other faith-based groups.

People need pills to purify water as community water and sanitation systems fail. Local ACT partners are assessing needs in the regions where they work, but insecurity has made travel all but impossible and has cut off most information about the current humanitarian situation, according to an ACT report.

In northwest Haiti, one ACT partner reported, the prolonged drought has severely reduced people's ability to cope with a new crisis. "Some people have not had a harvest in four years and are completely on the edge," said the country director of Christian Aid/ACT. Other ACT partners working in Haiti are the Lutheran World Federation, Haiti Protestant Federation and Haiti Christian Service.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is also planning to provide relief. In addition to ADRA's ongoing programs in literacy, micro-credit and health, ADRA will respond by providing medicine, food and clothing to the people most affected by the current crisis.

"We are working closely with ADRA Haiti's leadership to assess the needs of the people affected by this new crisis," said Frank Teeuwen, bureau chief for disaster preparedness and response for ADRA.

Meanwhile Aristide announced in a radio broadcast that those who overthrew him had "cut down the tree of peace," but "it will grow again." Aristide has come back before, in 1994, three years after a military coup.

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