Reference : V-P-HT-E-00350
Date : 12/01/2009
Country/Region : HAITI
Caption : Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross ambulance responding to a call.
Photographer : HAVIV, Ron
Confidentiality level : public
Publication restrictions : reserved users only
Copyright : ICRC/VII

Red Cross volunteers undertake particularly dangerous and stressful work as they evacuate the sick and wounded from the slums of the capital Port au Prince, sometimes having to make life and death decisions over the telephone with gang leaders.

Within seconds of the call coming through on his walkie talkie, 23 year old Jude Celloge has instructed his team of Red Cross volunteers to be ready to evacuate a man and a woman to the local MSF (Doctors without Borders) clinic.

Adrenalin racing, the volunteers pile into the Red Cross ambulance, its horn blaring as it screeches down the steep streets of Martissant, a shanty town in the south of Port Prince, considered the most violent area in the capital.

Jude and two other volunteers disappear into the narrow streets where the houses are squeezed so close together that people can only walk past in single file. Shouts go up to let the Red Cross through as the volunteers bring out the sick on a stretcher.

10 minutes later, with the heavy traffic and colourful tap taps (local taxis) having respectfully got out of the way, the ambulance delivers its two patients to the MSF emergency clinic, where the woman will be treated for internal bleeding and the man for severe stomach problems.

Since the Red Cross ambulance service began at the end of March 2008, the volunteers have evacuated nearly a thousand people. Most of them are chronically sick or pregnant women about to give birth.

However, sometimes and especially at certain times of the year the patients are victims of gang related violence.

"In the run up to Christmas, we dealt with 97 stabbings and shootings", says Jude Celloge, "as this is the time when the gangs are looking to make money and the violence escalates".

Although the levels of violence have decreased dramatically since the UN's major military offensive in March 2007 in Martissant and the capital's other notorious shanty town, Cite Soleil, with the killing and arrest of key gang leaders, the Red Cross continues to engage in dialogue with the remaining gang members to ensure that they respect the neutrality and impartiality of the emblem.

In Martissant, where the gangs are the most active, particularly in the poor neighbouring districts of Tibois and Grand Ravine, the Red Cross spent time contacting known gang members, as well as community leaders before it set up the ambulance service.

But still the work can be highly risky and stressful.

"Sometimes, after a shoot-out, two gangs call us out to go and pick up their injured and I have to make the decision where to send the ambulance first", says Celloge, emphasising that it is always the most serious cases that get priority.

All of the 80 volunteers come from Martissant and are well aware of the dangers of the job. They get paid 300 gourdes "danger money" a day (about 7 US dollars) but apart from Celloge, most are part time and work only a few shifts a month.

But for the volunteers the biggest reward comes from knowing that they are making a big difference to people's lives.

"Before it could take a heavily pregnant woman two hours to get to the MSF clinic, but now she now only has to dial 118 and she can get a free ride, accompanied by our volunteers trained in advanced first aid and stabilisation techniques", says Celloge.

With no state ambulances anywhere in Haiti, the poor rely on services run by organisations like the Red Cross and MSF. In Martissant, the MSF has 2 ambulances for emergency cases but says the demand is so high, it would ideally like the Red Cross to have 2 more ambulances.

But funds are limited. In Cite Soleil, the Red Cross has evacuated thousands of people using local taxis fitted out as ambulances marked with Red Cross emblems since it first started picking up the wounded at the height of the violence at the end of 2004. Plans are however afoot for the local branch to have its own ambulance later this year.

Its volunteers speak with pride about their work and how they are motivated by their desire to help their community. But their commitment can come at a price.

Twenty five year old Jean Guerlain was one of the first Red Cross volunteers to work in Cite Soleil, but in July 2006 he was shot in the mouth as left the Red Cross branch office to meet a member of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Although he was bleeding profusely, he managed to drag the UN officer to safety before losing consciousness.

Today, after undergoing 6 major operations, he is paralysed down one side of his face and speaks with great difficulty. But despite the constant pain and stigma from severe facial deformities, he still helps to evacuate the sick from Cite Soleil.

His work is much less dangerous than when he was shot, but he fears that the violent times could come again.

"People are angry and discontented. They have little to eat and nothing to do" he says, adding that the politicians have always used the poor in the capital's shanty towns to stir up discontent for their own political ends.

"I fear that there will always be work for the Red Cross teams here in Cite Soleil and Martissant".

Original material : digital
Resolution : 5616x3744
Orientation : landscape
Colour/B&W : colour