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.
A U.N. official said the organization is working on a massive distribution program, but it has to be done with the correct preparation and security.
“If you don’t do this properly, it will just be chaos and everyone fighting over the food,” said the official, who asked his name not be used as he is not authorized to give statements.
Officials say distribution has also been hampered by the collapse of the Haitian authorities and destruction of the U.N.’s own local headquarters, which imploded killing mission leader Hedi Annabi and dozens of other workers.
“Do you think if any media organization had its central headquarters destroyed it would be acting with the same efficiency?” asked the official.
The degenerating security situation also hampers the efforts of aid workers.
While looters began clearing out stores of any food and drink they soon moved on to lift stereos, cell phones and any other goods. Police have hit back firing tear gas and shooting several alleged thieves dead.
Violence has also erupted among the hungry and desperate, with various reported shootings and machete killings around the city center. On Sunday night, shots from rifles and pistols cracked out near a central hotel packed with journalists and aid workers.
The U.S. military has promised thousands more soldiers to provide security and help with the aid operation. However, it is unclear how many forces will come in and exactly what their mandate will be in the unwieldy urban sprawl.
Most of the desperate residents appear to be keen on intervention of American troops, at least for the immediate future.
“We need Obama to take over,” said Franz Dejean, an English teacher who had his house reduced to dust and was now holed up in a refugee camp.
The informal economy keeping Dejean and millions of others going is certainly precarious. The few vegetables available are selling at five times their normal price, while hawkers sell gasoline on the street at $20 a gallon.
The port, which brought the biggest source of food into the city, was devastated by the quake. One worker there estimated it would take several months to get operational.
Much of the food moving around had been stored before the quake and as it dries out completely, greater violence and unrest could be unleashed.
But Dejean argues that with the help of the United States and others countries, Haiti will be able to pull out of the crisis.
“You’ve got to be optimistic,” he said. “We have hit bottom. Things cannot get any worse than this. They have to get better.”