PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Hundreds of Haitian earthquake survivors protested in a suburb of the wrecked capital on Sunday, accusing a district mayor of corruption and hoarding food aid provided by relief groups, witnesses said.
The protest in the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince was one of the largest since the January 12 quake that killed more than 200,000 people and left over 1 million homeless. It reflected still simmering anger among survivors over problems in the massive international relief effort.
Aid agencies from around the world have moved tons of rice and other food into Haiti but distributions to the hungry and homeless have been slow and sometimes chaotic.
Banging on plastic buckets and waving branches and palm fronds, the protesters surged past piles of earthquake rubble — and a woman bathing by the side of the road — to the city hall in Petionville, where they accused Mayor Lydie Parent of hoarding aid.
“I am hungry, I am dying of hunger. Lydie Parent keeps the rice and doesn’t give us anything. They never go distribute where we live,” one protester said.
Parent was not immediately available for comment.
Most of the demonstrators were women. Aid agencies are doling out food to women to prevent men from dominating distribution sites, and because they believe women are more likely to share it with children and relatives.
Donor nations have poured tens of millions of dollars into the impoverished Caribbean nation and some Haitians have blamed corruption for the sometimes sluggish distribution of aid.
Sacks of donated rice have turned up in local street markets. Aid officials said it was inevitable that some aid would find its way to the black market in Haiti, which was ranked 10th from the bottom of Transparency International’s latest corruption rating of 180 nations.
Haitian President Rene Preval, who has been seen only occasionally in public since the quake, has been targeted by some protests, and graffiti messages of “Down with Preval” have been scrawled on some buildings and walls.
“We are all victims. It is a fallen country. It has lost its children, husbands, homes and family,” protester Agustin Michou said.
The demonstrators chanted “if the police shoot at us, we will burn everything,” but the protest ended peacefully and police did not intervene.
During a visit by senior Dominican Republic officials to Port-au-Prince over the weekend, Preval said he estimated some 250,000 people had been killed in the quake, and 250,000 houses were destroyed.
He added that a million homeless people urgently needed to be relocated in temporary shelter before the rainy season, which normally begins in March.
But he recognized that many quake victims would want to remain close to their original places of residence. “This is their neighborhood, their environment, they won’t want to leave those places,” he said.
In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton who is the United Nations special envoy and relief coordinator for Haiti, were committed to helping the earthquake-ravaged country.
“We have a special place in our heart for Haiti having gone there during our honeymoon many years ago. And it’s a place that is captivating. The people are so resilient. And they deserve so much better that what they’ve gotten over their history,” Hillary Clinton said.
The U.S. military, backed by a flotilla of warships and a fleet of aircraft flying in supplies, has been spearheading the international relief effort.
Additional reporting by Manuel Jimenez and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Jim Loney; editing by Pascal Fletcher