U.S. Troops Withdraw From Haiti

Haiti is still recovering from the devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people five months ago, but now that effort will now go on without the help of the U.S. military. The bulk of American troops were pulled out this week — just ahead of hurricane season. Host Michel Martin talks with David Harland of the United Nations Peacekeeping Department about where the recovery effort stands now in Haiti.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's the start of hurricane season and already there's destruction and death in Central America from a major storm, as well as a massive sink hole. What are the people there facing in the coming months? We'll go to Guatemala in a few minutes.

But, first, the Caribbean, where it's been nearly five months since that massive earthquake rocked Haiti leaving more than 200,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands injured, homeless or both.

The U.S. dispatched 22,000 troops to respond to the crisis. The bulk of those troops are being withdrawn this week. The small group that remains will assist in efforts that have shifted from recovery and stabilization to reconstruction.

We wanted to know more about the changing shape of those efforts, so we called David Harland. He's the director of Europe and the Latin America division of the United Nations peacekeeping department. He spent lots of time in Haiti since the disaster. He just came back and he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID HARLAND (Director, Europe and Latin America Division, U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just give us a sense of whether order has been restored? Just give us an overall sense of your impressions.

Mr. HARLAND: I think the first point to make is the scale of it is all around you. You see those images on television. You hear about them on the radio. But this is an earthquake which killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined. And now, several months after the earthquake, there are still well over a million people living without homes just in Port-au-Prince.

This is a country that lost the equivalent of over a hundred percent of its GDP in 35 seconds. There's really been nothing like it in human history ever. And now, five months after that earthquake, every street corner you're on you see it, whether it's the stores that were there wiped out, whether theyre still digging out bodies or whether it's the endless camps that occupy all the public spaces. No, it's all around you.

MARTIN: The bulk of U.S. troops, military troops, as we mentioned, are being pulled out this week. The U.S. State Department says that this signals that a, quote, "basic level of sustainment," unquote, has been achieved in Haiti. Do you agree with that assessment?

Mr. HARLAND: We in the U.N., we had a peacekeeping force on the ground of about 10,000. And the Haitians had voluntarily abolished their army and we were providing a degree of security while the country got back on its feet. After the earthquake the Americans insert this huge search force very, very quickly. And frankly, they did a lot of things that we couldn't have done by ourselves on the security side but also fantastic work on the engineering side, on the provision of relief side and so on.

And they have downsized. They've now transitioned out entirely of the main operation they had. Would I say that signals that, you know, all is well in Haiti? I don't think so. In fact, the day they left earlier this week was traditionally the opening day of what's considered the hurricane season. And I think Haiti, for various reasons, but not least the earthquake, is not terribly well-prepared for this coming hurricane season. And if it gets hit a bull's eye in the way it was four times in 2008, we could again have human suffering on a colossal scale.

MARTIN: And, in fact, I was going to ask you about that. Should we be prepared for another disaster?

Mr. HARLAND: Yes. I think the level of preparedness of the population is very low. The population has shown incredible resilience and dignity in the face of an earthquake disaster. But if that were to be compounded by serious flooding or wind damage from a hurricane, I think we could see, you know, a tipping point both in terms of human casualties and in terms of the political, the public security problem. And, frankly, the country is not well prepared. And if we're unlucky, then there is again going to be suffering on an unbelievable scale.

MARTIN: There's nothing that can be done to avert that?

Mr. HARLAND: There are measures that can be taken. And one of them is that the people who are outside of Port-au-Prince now, and there are about three-quarters of a million of them who have fled the city and who are living outside the city, most of them are not in tented camps. And they're also not in buildings that were destroyed by earthquakes. So they're living with relatives or they're in schools or public institutions or whatever.

Those people should be incentivized to the extent possible not to return to Port-au-Prince but to the areas around Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country, so that people don't get back into the most vulnerable positions.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, President Clinton is touring Haiti now, I believe. Former President Clinton, and he says he's unhappy with the progress he's seen on the ground. Agree, disagree?

Mr. HARLAND: That's right. No, I think you can't be happy. I mean, everywhere around you, people are still living with the aftermath of that hit. Schools aren't open, water is not back on, people are not back in their homes. And it's going to take a level of commitment and staying the course that we in the international relief community are simply not used to.

MARTIN: Well, who once the U.S. troops moving out who will take the lead?

Mr. HARLAND: Well, the U.S. very quickly realized that they didn't have major security obligations there. And so they pivoted relatively quickly, very quickly, and engaged themselves largely with directly supporting the humanitarian relief operation, providing everything from logistics to planning. And that will be sorely missed, but on the purely security side, the government of Haiti, the people of Haiti and the United Nations peacekeeping forces have for the moment got it more or less under control.

I think the big issue there is if the humanitarian relief and the economic recovery doesn't gather pace, then security problems of a more serious nature could begin to emerge.

MARTIN: And, finally, before I let you go, just this week, tropical storm Agatha struck Central America. Little more than 170 people were killed. And it just seems as though every year we hear of one disaster or another that just wreaks havoc on Central America and the Caribbean. Is there something that the international community can do to curb this kind of annual ritual of suffering?

Mr. HARLAND: The short answer to your question is that there are no quick answers, but there is a need for a broad, slow, steady offensive against the whole series of interlocked vulnerabilities that these places have. Haiti was making good progress in that direction, and I think the challenge for this year is really to see whether Haiti can get back on to the relatively good track it was on immediately prior to January 12th.

MARTIN: David Harland is the director of the Europe and Latin America division of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations. He was kind enough to join us from New York. And as I mentioned, he's just back from Haiti. Thank you so much for speaking to us.

Mr. HARLAND: Thank you very much.

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