Elderly Haitians Waiting to Die

An elderly woman begs for food from people passing by as she lays with other senior citizens outside their nursing home in Port-au-Prince, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010i. More than 100 old men and women were living outside the home, that was damaged during Tuesday's earthquake, with no food or care other than an occasional bath from two orderlies who remained to help. AP

The old lady crawls in the dirt, wailing for her pills. The elderly man lies motionless as rats pick at his overflowing diaper.

There is no food, water or medicine for the 85 surviving residents of the Port-au-Prince Municipal Nursing Home, barely a mile from the airport where a massive international aid effort is taking shape.

"Help us, help us," 69-year-old Mari-Ange Levee begged Sunday, lying on the ground with a broken leg and ribs. A cluster of flies swarmed the open fracture in her skull.

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One man has already died, and administrator Jean Emmanuel said more would follow soon unless water and food arrive immediately.

"I appeal to anybody to bring us anything, or others won't live until tonight," he said, motioning toward five men and women who were having trouble breathing, a sign that the end was near.

The dead man was Joseph Julien, a 70-year-old diabetic who was pulled from the partially collapsed building and passed away Thursday for lack of food.

His rotting body lies on a mattress, nearly indistinguishable from the living around him, so skinny and tired they seemed to be simply waiting for death.

With six residents killed in the quake, the institution now has 25 men and 60 women camped outside their former home. Some have a mattress in the dirt to lie on. Others don't.

Madeleine Dautriche, 75, said some of the residents had pooled their money to buy three packets of pasta, which the dozens of pensioners shared on Thursday, their last meal. Since there was no drinking water, some didn't touch the noodles because they were cooked in gutter water.

Dautriche noted that many residents wore diapers that hadn't been changed since the quake.

"The problem is, rats are coming to it," she said.

Though very little food aid had reached Haitians anywhere by Sunday, Emmanuel said the problem was made worse at the nursing home because it is located near Place de la Paix, an impoverished downtown neighbourhood.

Thousands of homeless slum dwellers have pitched their makeshift tents on the nursing home's ground, in effect shielding the elderly patients from the outside world with a tense maze of angry people, themselves hungry and thirsty.

"I'm pleading for everyone to understand that there's a truce right now, the streets are free, so you can come through to help us," said Emmanuel, 27, one of the rare officials not to have fled the squalor and mayhem. He insisted that foreign aid workers wouldn't be in danger if they tried to cross through the crowd to reach the elderly group.

Violent scuffles erupted Saturday in the adjacent soccer stadium when U.S. helicopters dropped boxes of military rations and Gatorade. But none of this trickle of help had reached the nursing home residents, who said some refugees have robbed them of what little they had.

Dautriche, who was sitting on the ground because of her broken back, held out an empty blue plastic basin. "My underwear and my money were in there," she said, sobbing. "Children stole it right in front of me and I couldn't move."

The area was an eery corner of silence within the clamour of crying babies and toddlers running naked in the mud. Guarding the little space was Phileas Julien, 78, a blind man in a wheelchair who shouted at anybody approaching to turn back.

During moments of lucidity, Julien said he was better off than other pensioners because the medicine he was taking provided sustenance. A moment later, he threw his arms out to hug a passer-by he mistook for his grandson.



Also trying to guard the centre was Jacqueline Thermiti, 71, who couldn't stand because of pain but who brandished her walking stick when children approached.

"Of all the wars and revolutions and hurricanes, this quake is the worst thing God has ever sent us," Thermiti said.

Initially, Thermiti and others believed their relatives would come to feed them, because many live in the slums nearby. "But I don't even know if my children are alive," she said.

Thermiti was surprisingly feisty for someone who hadn't eaten since Tuesday. She attributed that to experience with hunger during earlier hardships.

"But I was younger, and now there's no water either," she said.

She predicted that unlike other pensioners, she could still hold out for at least another day.

"Then if the foreigners don't come (with aid)," she said, "it will be up to baby Jesus."

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