HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 13 (IPS) — The major earthquake that struck Haiti Tuesday, causing death and destruction in the capital of Port-au-Prince, may also turn out to be a veritable disaster for the United Nations, which has over 9,000 personnel, including peacekeepers, international staffers and local civilians, scattered throughout the country.
The world body is bracing itself for the worse case scenario, with the possibility of over 100 deaths in its own extended family.
Alain LeRoy, under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, described the devastation in Haiti as potentially “one of the most tragic and horrible tragedies in the history of U.N. peacekeeping”.
The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which was established in June 2004, had around 3,000 troops and police personnel posted in and around the capital, with the remaining 6,000 outside Port-au-Prince, which took the deadliest blow.
The Christopher Hotel, which was doubling as the headquarters of the United Nations in Haiti, collapsed during the quake with possibly more than 100 to 150 U.N. personnel trapped under the rubble.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support Susan Malcora would only confirm 16 U.N. fatalities, including 11 Brazilians, three Jordanians, one Argentine, and one Chadian, with 56 injured.
At the same time, she said, there were 150 U.N. staffers unaccounted for, including the Special Representative in Haiti Hedi Annabi, the highest ranking U.N. official in the country.
LeRoy told reporters that he cannot confirm whether Annabi was still alive in the rubble or dead, as news reports from Haiti would have it. “We cannot find him,” he added.
The United Nations suffered one of its largest single losses during the bombing of its compound in Baghdad in August 2003 when 22 were killed, including the Special Representative to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello and his Chief of Staff Nadia Younes.
If the death toll in Haiti is finally confirmed, it could completely overshadow the tragedy in Baghdad.
Until late Wednesday night, the United Nations was unable to provide any precise casualty figures primarily because of a breakdown in telecommunications between New York and Port-au-Prince caused by the quake, whose magnitude was estimated at 7.0.
“We are yet to establish the number of dead or injured, which we fear may well be in the hundreds. Medical facilities have been inundated with injured,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Tuesday.
The United Nations also had dozens of staffers working outside of the peacekeeping missions, including the for the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
Briefing reporters, the secretary-general said that information on the full extent of the damage is still scanty.
Initial reconnaissance and aerial assessments have been undertaken. It is now clear that the earthquake has had a devastating impact on the capital, Port-au-Prince. The remaining areas of Haiti appear to be largely unaffected, he added.
“As you are aware,” he said, “buildings and infrastructure were heavily damaged throughout the capital. Basic services such as water and electricity have collapsed almost entirely.”
Both the secretary-general and the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, are likely to visit the Caribbean island nation shortly.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters that the United Nations was also extremely concerned about the fate of the general population of Port-au-Prince and areas outside the capital.
“We are mobilizing every effort we can to start the humanitarian operation,” Holmes said.
The first priority, he said, is search and rescue, because many people, not just in the U.N. buildings but elsewhere, are trapped inside the rubble.
“We know that there are search and rescue teams on the way, or will be on the way, from the United States, from China, from France via Guadaloupe, from the Dominican Republic, and many other countries, I think, will be sending their teams as quickly as possible,” Holmes said.
Asked about the status of the rescue efforts, Holmes said: “We have been in touch with the U.S. administration, including the military.”
They are mobilising their assets as quickly as they can, particularly on the search and rescue side, “so I think you can take it for granted that there will be a major U.S. effort.”
Asked about medical care, Holmes said: “We know at least one hospital has collapsed; others have been damaged.”
“And I think one of the major needs is of course for medical teams and medical supplies for those injured and for those coming out from under the rubble. That is another major problem there”.
“I think the medical infrastructure, the medical services have been very badly damaged, and we are going to need a lot of help with that from the outside too,” he added.