Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Departure of Canadian Forces hampers Jacmel's reconstruction

Canadian Forces ended their two-month-long relief mission last week. The flow of aid through the seaport has slowed with the departure of navy personnel.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It was the darkest times, when people were still digging themselves out from beneath the rubble, that Bassan Lumumba Pierre will remember as the highlight of his managerial career.

Canada's Air Force had just swooped into town, transforming his sleepy regional airfield into a buzzing international airport equipped with a real control tower. Hundreds of aircraft were landing each week - small charters, helicopters and massive military planes. One day, Angelina Jolie touched down.

The flurry gave Mr. Pierre, Jacmel's airport manager, a vision of how an international airport could brighten the future of his city. But that dream evaporated last week when the Canadian Forces dismantled their camps and pulled out of Jacmel at the end of a two-month relief mission.

Story continues below advertisement

In their wake, Canada's soldiers left an unintended vacuum that seems to be sucking parts of the city they worked so hard to rebuild not forward, but back. That includes the airport, now a shell of what it had become under the Canadians, with an average of less than one plane a day setting down on its deserted landing strip. The Canadian pullout has also hampered the flow of aid through the city's seaport.

Many of the aid groups that remain in Jacmel blame Canada's military withdrawal for hampering their efforts - and by extension, the pace of the city's reconstruction.

"I love team Canada. … But you came to stabilize and you created more destabilization by taking things away," said Justin Baker, founder of Conscious Alliance, a U.S.-based aid group that has been on the ground solving logistical problems for a network of small non-governmental organizations.

Canada's soldiers took with them the fleet of heavy lift machinery delivered to Jacmel after the earthquake, even though aid groups were hoping some of it would remain. That would have allowed them to receive large shipments at the port, which is hampered by its utter lack of cranes and unloading equipment.

A 100-tonne barge loaded with shipping containers for aid groups is due to arrive in Jacmel any day now. Without the Canadians to help unload it, no one knows if they'll be able to get the material off the barge and into the city.

At the airport, operations have been all but abandoned. The open-air office that served as the control tower - set up by Canadian soldiers with portable communications equipment when they arrived and dismantled before they left - has been evacuated. The main terminal, which is empty save for a few folding metal chairs, was also stripped. Without a control tower, immigration office or soldiers to provide security, Mr. Pierre was forced to close the airport to international traffic.

"I will not continue operating without proper equipment," Mr. Pierre said. "There is a lot of demand. … But for me security is the main concern."

Story continues below advertisement

Jacmel is no longer authorized to receive international flights directly, regardless of whether they're carrying much-needed aid or volunteers.

Instead, flights are diverted to Port-au-Prince, where they must land and clear customs before proceeding to Jacmel. Before leaving Haiti, the planes must return to Port-au-Prince to clear customs and pay the third landing fee of the trip. The change is costly and time-consuming for scores of volunteer pilots upon whom aid groups have been relying. Many pilots have ceased making runs to Jacmel altogether.

In a written statement, Dana Cryderman, a spokesperson for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, noted that Canadian soldiers were deployed in the aftermath of the disaster with a mandate to provide immediate relief in the form of medical support, producing potable water and facilitating logistics to ensure aid reached Haiti quickly.

"But as Haiti moves from the relief to the recovery phase, civilian agencies are often better suited for the mid- to long-term tasks," she wrote. "The decision to withdraw the Canadian Forces from Haiti … reflects the growing ability of the Government of Haiti, the United Nations and other humanitarian actors … to lead in the delivery of emergency relief."

Ms. Cryderman added that Canadian officials in Haiti worked closely with humanitarian organizations and Haitian officials before their withdrawal "to ensure an effective handover of Canadian Forces' tasks to other humanitarian actors."

The limited capacity of Jacmel's air and sea ports is creating concern among aid groups over the viability of their long-term development projects, including a free medical rehabilitation clinic in the city's core. With rainy season looming, the only other route into the city - a winding mountain road - is likely to become unreliable as well.

Story continues below advertisement

"When rainy season comes the roads here are going to be impassable. Jacmel is going to be cut off," said Gerhard Nagel, an organizer with a South African aid group, Gift of the Givers.

"We need to let the world know there's still a state of emergency and it should remain one … until hurricane season is over," Mr. Nagel said, adding, "The only way of moving cargo is by the sea."

Reopening that channel, though, is not going to be easy. Jacmel's rundown seaport has long been deemed nearly unusable by aid groups. The World Food Program has had a long-term presence in the city, but until last week avoided using the port for deliveries. Thieves regularly make off with a portion of the goods being unloaded from small ships at the dock, which has fallen into disrepair. There is no electricity or even a buoyage system to mark the channel into the bay. Last week a WFP ship ran aground on its way into the harbour, to the dismay of a dozen aid representatives gathered at the port.

Other concerns include the fact that United Nations soldiers stationed at the gates to the port rarely ask to see credentials, and Haitian customs agents routinely tax aid shipments or confiscate supplies for their own use.

"The port is not secure at all," Mr. Baker said. "If you have a shirt on that says you work for a shipping company, you're in," he said. In the frenzy of offloading at the dock - a process done mainly by hand - it can become impossible to distinguish dock workers from thieves, he said. "They take their shirts off when they get hot," Mr. Baker added. "For bandits, it's just free rein."

The larger issue, though, is that the port will remain largely ineffective unless aid groups can persuade someone to donate heavy lifting equipment. Some aid groups are holding out hope that with some creative negotiating, Haitian officials will allow the airport to once again become the city's primary port of entry.

"Here's how it's going to become an international airport again," said Steve Heicklen, a New Jersey firefighter whose NGO, America's Disaster Reaction Team, ran a $3.5-million multipurpose medical clinic outside Jacmel that was one of the area's most successful and productive clinics throughout the two months after the earthquake.

"You pay off the right guy and he makes it an international airport again."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Global food reporter

Before taking on the global food beat, Jessica reported extensively from Haiti to document the nation's recovery from a catastrophic earthquake that struck in January, 2010. The resulting multimedia series, Project Jacmel, won a National Newspaper Award. Jessica has also reported from Afghanistan. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.