PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Elite U.S. soldiers lie exhausted on tennis courts and beside a pool. Fifty thousand homeless people cram the nine-hole golf course. Helicopters land every half an hour with crates of water and food aid.
The prestigious Club Petionville, on a hill in spacious grounds overlooking Port-au-Prince and the Caribbean sea beyond, has been transformed into probably the biggest refugee camp in Haiti after last week’s catastrophic earthquake.
Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere but its elite came to the country club’s elegant stone headquarters to dine and mingle with foreign diplomats and businessmen. Now the club houses commanders from the U.S. military’s crack 82nd Airborne Division.
Down the lawns and beyond a loose military cordon, the golf course is covered with tents, made from poles and sheets by people who flocked onto the club’s grounds after the earthquake brought down its perimeter walls, as well as their homes.
The club, named for former Haitian President Alexandre Petion, largely escaped damage, save a few broken pillars.
“The days are long but it is good to help,” said Staff Sergeant Michael Watson, a veteran of the U.S. military’s response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.
“Katrina was bad but this is a lot bigger.”
The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti last week has killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people, according to the government, and left several million on the street.
Unlike chaotic scenes elsewhere, with refugees fighting and scrambling for water and food, an orderly queue winds up the lawns of the club. Each refugee is allowed two bottles of water and one Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) ration.
”If they get unruly, we just sit down,“ said Captain John Hartsock. ”It has only happened twice. They get the message.
“We don’t want everyone going nuts, like the scene in ‘Black Hawk Down’ from Somalia.”
Hartsock, who has served three times in Iraq, said it was easier to deliver humanitarian aid in Haiti because there was not the same risk of attack. Instead of the razor-wire common in Iraq, a line of white swimming pool chairs is the only barrier between the soldiers and the refugees.
“We want to avoid the military look,” Hartsock said.
The mass of flimsy tents and thousands of people lying on the grass give the appearance of a traditional refugee camp but a closer look reveals differences, perhaps reflecting the better-off social milieu of areas near the club.
Many of the refugees are comfortably trilingual: Creole, French and English. The occupants of two or three tents even had solar panels outside, charging up some mobile phones.
Rony Florial normally teaches tennis at the club. Now he is helping to organize refugee lines, while off-duty soldiers catch some sleep on the tennis courts. Other soldiers await their next shift around the pool, lounging on deckchairs in full uniform, with spectacular views over the city and hills beyond.
“We are all doing what we can to help,” Florial said. “The owners have closed the club and allowed the Americans to take over. It is for the national interest.”
Since Saturday, U.S. soldiers have attended the refugees from sunrise to sundown at the Petionville Club. On Monday, they gave out an estimated 20,000 bottles of water.
Refugee leaders, however, say many needs are unattended. With the golf course on a high slope, the temperatures have dropped fast at night, and that has killed various children.
“We need blankets, we need toilets, we need help for the children who have lost their parents,” organizer Michel Ovilus said. “And we need houses. These people do not want to spend the rest of their life on a golf course.” (Additional reporting by Jorge Silva; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Bill Trott)