Disgraceful Suspension of Medical Evacuations Captures US Indifference to Magnitude of Haitian Suffering

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The US military has resumed medical evacuation flights of critically injured Haitian earthquake victims to Florida after suspending the flights for five days. The flights were halted in a cost dispute between Florida and the federal government. Just back from Haiti, Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights says, “It’s unbelievable that [the US] couldn’t figure out a way to take these most critically ill, but still savable, people in.” Bill Quigley, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. He just returned from a trip to Haiti. AMY GOODMAN: As we move on now to Haiti, it’s been three weeks since the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated much of the country. The official death toll stands at 170,000; it’s expected to rise. Many more have been left injured and homeless. A full twenty-one days after the quake, survivors are still desperate to receive aid, with food, water and medical relief not reaching the areas it’s needed most.

In the Haitian town of Gressier, residents blocked roads and seized trucks Friday to protest the lack of aid. Residents said trucks with humanitarian assistance have driven through the town on the road to Léogâne, but have not stopped to distribute any aid in Gressier. Well, when we drove to Gressier two weeks ago, a young man approached us to say, well, just that.

STEVENSON CALIXTE: [translated] Up until now, people are suffering. [inaudible] People are wounded. They have broken bones. And they haven’t done anything. There are no doctors. There’s nothing, nothing here. We, here in Gressier, we don’t have anything. And they haven’t told us anything, either. And for the wounded, we can’t even figure out. And 98 percent of the houses have been destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are the people buried?

STEVENSON CALIXTE: [translated] They made a hole up here. Some places, they made mass graves.

AMY GOODMAN: Are people still caught in the rubble?

STEVENSON CALIXTE: [translated] Yes, yes, up until now. We don’t know if they’re living or dead. There’s nothing. We have no means to know if they’re living or dead. The only thing I know, everywhere you go, when you smell the odor, you know that there are people dead there.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the US military on Monday resumed medical evacuation flights of critically injured Haitian earthquake victims after suspending the flights for five days. This is Air Force Colonel Len Profenna.

COL. LEN PROFENNA: We’re here to help the Haitians, and we want to move the patients as long as they’re given to us. If I’m given the mission to move the patients, I move the patients. As far as how the decision was made to stop and start, I was not involved in that decision.

AMY GOODMAN: The US military had ended the evacuation flights on Wednesday because Florida officials complained their hospitals were overwhelmed and they needed a plan for reimbursement for the care they were providing. The federal government announced Monday it would reimburse American hospitals who treat earthquake victims. Medical officials said the suspension of flights had been catastrophic for patients.

In the meantime, Haitians continue to bury their dead. On Monday, dozens of residents in the northern Haitian town of Titanyen gathered to bury relatives in a mass grave. One resident, Cartel Casseus, blasted the international community’s response to the disaster and called for the return of the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

CARTEL CASSEUS: [translated] The Americans and the French have been in Haiti for a long time, and they never do anything. Only Aristide will do something for us. Each time Aristide wants to make a change, they make him fly away. I want to die for him. We are the people of Aristide, and we believe he’s going to come back. We don’t live, because we don’t have possibilities. We can’t go to school. We can’t go to work. We live on the street.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined here in the Democracy Now! studio in New York by Bill Quigley, the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. He has just returned from Haiti.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bill. What did you find?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, tragically, there was very little international assistance available in any of the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince where we were. We saw tremendous examples of Haitians helping Haitians and sharing what they had, trying to take care of each other, but tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people living what I think the media has called “tent cities,” what really are sheet camps, that people don’t even have tents. They have sheets strung on ropes, with people under them.

And I really think that any person in the United States, any person in the international community that was dropped into any neighborhood in Port-au-Prince and walked two blocks would be shocked at the absence of international assistance there, because I think there was such an outpouring of individual charitable response, and-but that is just not getting to the people of Haiti.

As you know, I lived through Katrina, and I have been an advocate in there, but we’re talking, at this point, of a death toll that is a hundred times as serious as what happened in Katrina, and people without resources, without food, without water, without shelter. There has been another sixty aftershocks in the last couple of weeks. The engineers and people are advising people that they cannot move back into their houses. There is very little shelter. And there is some assistance in terms of healthcare; there’s a fair amount of international response in terms of that. But a comprehensive assistance for the people of Haiti is just not there.

AMY GOODMAN: The Associated Press reports that the Haitian government is receiving less than a penny for each dollar the United States spends on aid efforts in Haiti. Thirty-three cents of every dollar goes to the US military?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. Everybody who’s concerned should take a look at that brief report, because a third of it goes to military response, another third of it is going through and that, that-who knows how much of that money is actually getting into the hands of Haitians? And only one cent.

And one of the people that was very concerned that I spoke with there, I was telling him about the challenges that we had in Katrina, with out-of-state contractors and people from outside the community coming in and doing the jobs and then leaving, and he said, “Well, Bill, at least that money stayed in your own country.” He said, “You know, in the case of Haiti, it’s the outsiders who are coming in, the outsiders who are getting the assistance and getting the jobs, and then they’re going back with the money and the time back to their own country, and Haiti is being left with nothing.”

AMY GOODMAN: How does Haiti compare to the Haiti you knew before? You’ve been there many, many times.

BILL QUIGLEY: Haiti has always struggled. And, you know, the most impoverished country in our hemisphere. But it is much, much worse off. It is much harder to be a Haitian today than it’s ever been. And I think, unfortunately, from what I could see on the ground, the need of people is continuing to rise. People are getting sicker. They’re getting thinner. They have less and less food. But while the need is rising, the international response is leveling out and, if not, sort of declining. So I really fear that without a significant change in the response of the sisters and brothers of Haiti around the world, that what’s in front of Haiti for the next couple of weeks and couple of months is much worse than what it is today.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the best way to get aid to Haiti, do you think?

BILL QUIGLEY: I think that, historically, Haitians have helped Haitians and that the greatest source of-single source of money in Haiti’s economy has been money from other Haitians that have sent money in. That has been backed up because of a lack of money, lack of communications, that sort of stuff. So I think assisting Haitians in the United States to get money directly to family members in Haiti is very important.

The people on the ground kept telling me, “Put pressure on USAID to work with the Haitian community organizations, the churches.” The government is in collapse. There’s no doubt about that. And people are very upset with their government there. And you hear people saying Haitians want the United States to take over. I don’t think anybody want-I didn’t meet anybody who wants the United States to take over. They do want more assistance, and they do want assistance working in partnership with local organizations, who are begging for food and water. And they said they’ll be in charge of distributing that. And they’re ready to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And you still-and you have this aid that we saw at the airport in Port-au-Prince, the massive mound of aid that is piled high. When we were there, aside from everything else, there were thousands of bottles of Aquafina water. A truck pulled up. We thought, oh, maybe there’s hope. And men started loading the truck, and we went up to them and asked them where are they bringing this water, and they said, “To the US embassy.”

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, there is a sense that some of the aid has been brought into the country, but it is being held in secret storage places, because whoever has it hasn’t figured out how to distribute it yet in a fair way. But in the meantime, literally, there are babies dying of malnutrition. There are elders who are dying from the shock and untreated wounds that they have had. And this is not something that we can’t do something. We can do it. But there seems to be a lack of a will. There’s lack of communication, lack of coordination.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of letting Haitians into the United States, this holding off of critically injured Haitians to Florida hospitals?

BILL QUIGLEY: That is just disgraceful. It is just-it’s unbelievable that the state of Florida, the United States, the medical communities around the country, couldn’t figure a way to take these most critically ill, but still savable, people in. And I think it was a huge mistake on our part. But I think it is a good example of exactly what’s going on, magnified by a thousand, of what’s going on in Haiti itself.

AMY GOODMAN: The latest news of Haitian authorities arresting ten Baptist missionaries from the United States after they were caught, well, the Haitian authorities said, attempting to smuggle thirty-three Haitian children out of Haiti. These missionaries are saying, no, they just didn’t do the proper paperwork.

BILL QUIGLEY: As people know, half of Haitians are under the age of fifteen. It’s a very young country. There are little children all over the place. There are orphans all over the place. And the truth is that people are very, very desperate. So if somebody says, “Look, let me bring your child to a school. Let me bring your child to get some food and some shots, bring them to a doctor,” there are parents who would trust folks like that. So the idea that parents are being misled, that children are being spirited out of the country, that folks, for whatever purpose, are taking advantage of the situation is absolutely accurate.

At the same time, I think-I think the closer you look to what these people were doing, the closer it becomes that these folks had no clue of what they really were trying to do. There were very mixed messages. They had on their website that they were going to do wholesale adoptions. They told other people they were going to open an orphanage. They-

AMY GOODMAN: And then it turned out that some of the kids were not orphans.

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. Several-many of the kids were not orphans. And as they said, you know, this was God’s call to them. This was God’s plan to them. And I thought the Minister of Justice in Haiti said, “Well, I’m going leave to God, you know, what belongs to God, but this is an issue of justice and law in Haiti, and we are not going to stand for it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, finally, your center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, represents Maher Arar. He’s asking the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling blocking him from suing the US government.

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. This is another example of the courts failing to uphold their duty as a check or a balance to the actions of Congress or the administration. And the courts have said, look, maybe it’s true that this guy was kidnapped, maybe it’s true that he was rendered and he was tortured and held in a little underground burial spot for a year, and it’s true that he was innocent, but this is not something for the courts to get into, because this looks into sensitive issues of foreign policy, sensitive issues of secrecy. Well, that is just-it’s a green light for the government to do whatever they want, under whatever circumstances.

And this is a guy who was snatched by the United States government at JFK Airport in New York and sent to Syria. So, I mean, it’s not something that happened in another place. We took him off of a plane in JFK, that he was going to Canada, and gave him to the Syrians, sent him to Syria to be tortured for a year, because people thought he was a terrorist, which he wasn’t. And unless the Supreme Court rises and reasserts its role, the role of the courts to hold the government accountable, then this is immunity for John Ashcroft and Bush officials, and it is impunity of the kind that we criticize countries for around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, I want to thank you for being with us, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, just recently back from Haiti.

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