Port-Au-Prince (AFP) April 21, 2010
The meal doesn't look like much, rice, a few vegetables and a little bit of meat, but for the Haitian school children who receive it for free, it is reason enough to come to class.
By 10:30 am on a Wednesday, the smell of chicken stock wafts through the Rosalie Javoukey school, located in a neighborhood of Haiti's devastated capital Port-au-Prince.
In the shade of a three-story building scheduled for demolition, women bustle about, doling food onto metal and plastic plates on huge tables set up in between white Unicef tents.
The playground has been eliminated "because it is covered in tents," said Sister Marie-Bernardette, the school's headmistress, and now it serves as a staging area for the daily free school meal.
The children, aged five to 12, wait their turn to retrieve their meal. They return to their desks, say grace and then begin eating, "in silence," their headmistress reminds them.
Schools across Haiti's capital, devastated by a January 12 quake that killed at least 220,000 people, including some 1,350 teachers and 38,000 students, officially reopened on April 6.
But 100 days after the devastating 7.0-magnitude quake, the country continues to struggle and many children are still missing from classrooms in the capital.
Some have left for the countryside, others were killed in the quake, and some are being kept home by their parents.
"It's difficult to convince parents to send their children to school. They are scared that there will be another earthquake and the school will be destroyed," said Alejandro Chicheri, a spokesman for the World Food Programme.
Students at the school also attend classes in fear of what might happen.
"I don't feel at ease at school," said Valencia Demostene, 12. "I know that we will still have natural disasters, like earthquakes..." Her voice trails off.
At the moment, Rosalie Javoukey school has some 400 students, 200 fewer than before the earthquake.
To encourage attendance, the World Food Program has launched a major food distribution program in schools in Haiti, a country where some 500,000 children do not get an education, roughly one quarter of all the country's youth.
Some 550,000 students already receive a meal each day, but the figure is expected to rise to 800,000 in coming weeks.
"We're trying to get as many children as possible back to school, which will allow them to return to reality and to save their school year. And it also helps parents who are trying to find work so they can bring some money home," said Chicheri.
For the students in this underprivileged neighborhood, the meal is a blessing.
"There are some parents who don't have anything to give their children to eat. You can see it on the faces of the children, they are preoccupied because they are hungry," said Mother Louis, a teacher at the school.
The meals provide the children with some comfort in the short-term at least, but many remain deeply scarred by the experience of the January quake.
Mother Louis asks a class of students how many of them were trapped beneath the rubble of buildings that were strewn across Port-au-Prince by the quake.
About half raise their hands.
"I was under the rubble for two days. My father was the one who pulled me out," said Francesca Jeune, a nine-year-old who dreams of becoming a doctor.
She describes her experience with a giant grin on her face, but teachers say their students remain traumatized and they try to provide the children with therapy.
"We play, we move around. Anything to try to get the earthquake off their minds," Mother Louis says.
earlier related report
Up to 300,000 people killed in Haiti quake: UN
Port-Au-Prince (AFP) April 22, 2010 - Haiti's devastating January 12 earthquake killed between 250,000 and 300,000 people, the head of the United Nations mission in the country said Thursday.
Until now, the Haitian government death toll was more than 220,000.
April 21 "marked the 100th day since the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, leaving between 250,000 and 300,000 people dead," said Edmond Mulet, the head of the UN mission in Haiti.
Mulet also said that 300,000 people were wounded in the disaster, and more than one million people were left homeless.
The 7.0-magnitude quake left much of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince in ruins, destroying infrastructure and the seat of government and causing a humanitarian catastrophe in a country already considered the poorest in the Americas.
Mulet, speaking at a press conference, said that he wants the UN Security Council to send an extra 800 police officers to provide safety in the refugee camps.
"In the history of humanity one has never seen a natural disaster of this dimension," said Mulet, adding that the Haiti quake death toll was twice the toll of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
Mulet said that the next 12 to 18 months will be "critical," noting that peacekeepers in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) will focus on five areas: helping support the government organize quick elections, coordinate "post-disaster" humanitarian aid, provide general security, support the Haitian government in carrying out its reconstruction plan, and "help Haiti rebuild its human capital."
Concerning security, Mulet said MINUSTAH forces will help the Haitian National Police have "a more visible presence" to help the tens of thousands of people living in 1,200 refugee camps.
Mulet, a native of Guatemala, took over the UN mission on March 31, replacing Tunisian Hedi Annabi, who was killed in the quake.
If the Security Council accepts Mulet's recommendations, the overall number of UN police in Haiti will rise to 4,391.
When the MINUSTAH peacekeeping soldiers are also counted -- though Mulet has not asked for an increase in this force -- the total UN force would reach 13,300 supported by more than 2,000 civilians.
Separately, Mulet said the Haitian government on Thursday ordered a three-week moratorium on the forced evacuation of refugees camping out on private land, schools or markets.
For nearly two weeks, the authorities and private property owners have urged people squatting on their property to leave.
More than 7,000 people who took refuge at the Port-au-Prince stadium were moved out 10 days ago, and last week some 10,000 Haitians living in a school were ordered out.
"There are students that want to return to their schools to continue their studies, and there are refugees living in the schools. So in order to avoid clashes, a moratorium was established," Mulet said.
UN officials have opened two refugee camps on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in order to accept some 10,000 refugees currently in danger of being affected by flooding as the Caribbean rainy season is set to begin.
Mulet also said that Haiti "is going on the right path" towards reconstruction, and that he was showing "prudent optimism." He also urged people to "not underestimate the size of the task and the challenges that Haiti faces."