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Revived street market helps relieve Haiti food crisis

Looting is rife as gas fetches $20 a gallon in quake-devastated country left without an effective government.

People try to get food at a food distribution center in Port-au-Prince Jan. 17, 2010. World leaders pledged aid to rebuild a devastated Haiti, but on the streets of its wrecked capital earthquake survivors were still waiting for the basics: food, water and medicine. (Kena Betancur/Reuters)

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — Gunshots rattle through the night air across this shattered Caribbean capital. A skeleton police force is powerless to stop relentless looting. Residents scavenge for food and water as international aid trickles in too slowly for the millions of hungry mouths.

But despite the lawlessness and absence of government, the Haitian people have started to reactivate their street economy amid the ruins, providing a vital lifeline.

In the days following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that tore this seaside city up like it was made of paper, no goods or services moved as people fought to get loved ones out of rubble and to save the wounded from dying.

However, as the first week since the quake came to a close, Haitians pulled their few resources together to get small shops and market stalls open, rickety busses and motorbike taxis moving and local radio stations on air.

The efforts against the huge odds have given most Haitians their only food, holding back the desperate population from exploding even further.

“We have to do this for ourselves. There is no one here at all here to help us,” said Jean Kenel, sitting in a makeshift refugee camp that has sprung up on the field of the national soccer team.

Kenel said he had gone for days without a bite but now ate rice and vegetables from a meal cooked with the shared food of several families in the camp, brought from a nearby marketplace that managed to bring in produce through the rubble-strewn roads.

Haiti’s government collapsed after the tremor, with the presidential palace, seven ministries and the senate in ruins and dozens of politicians dead.

It has since mustered together a fraction of its police as well as a small fleet of fire trucks to hand out water. Meanwhile, the homeless President Rene Preval has given a spattering of speeches, talking emptily of hope and recovery. But he is widely accused of being impotent in the face of the catastrophe.

“The president has been nowhere in this tragedy. There is no real Haitian government right now,” says Mario Viau, director of Signal FM radio, which has kept going on a petrol generator through the crisis, getting vital news out across the hammered metropolis.

International aid has begun flooding into the national airport, which was handed over to the U.S. military in a deal agreed on with Preval.

Medicines from this aid are being used across makeshift field hospitals while global rescue teams can be seen pulling a surprising number of survivors out of rubble.

However, there is little sign of food aid on the Haitian streets. While some vitamin-rich cookies and other goods were handed out near the airport, almost nothing could be seen in the city, even in the biggest refugee camp, a sprawling clutter of sheet-tents in front of the collapsed-presidential palace.