published Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Haitians search desperately for missing relatives

By MICHELLE FAUL

Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — They wait outside crumbled schools or shattered markets, searching for sisters, fathers, children, lovers. They stand vigil at smashed buildings where sons were last known to be, or at tangles of concrete where their mothers once went shopping.

Across the ruins of Port-au-Prince — and from computer screens around the world — people are desperate to learn whether loved ones are among the living — or buried anonymously.

At the small mountain of rubble where the luxury Montana Hotel stood, Johanne Lerebours did not look hopeful. But, she said, “I have to have hope because there are people alive in there.”

Her brother Alain was in the hotel restaurant when Tuesday’s earthquake hit.

No one knows how many dozens of people are missing from the hotel because its register is buried. But Lerebours came when she heard that rescue dogs found three people alive in the rubble Saturday morning.

Her mood swings wildly between despair and hope. As the 43-year-old kindergarten teacher spoke, rescue workers descended from the rubble carrying a corpse in a silver body bag.

“I just hope that isn’t where I’m going to find my brother. I just don’t know. And I need to know,” she said.

Yet she could not bring herself to look into any body bags Friday, when people were asked if they could identify victims from the hotel.

“It was clear the bodies inside were bloated. I couldn’t bear the thought that that might be my last memory of my brother. I finally peeked into one. It just had someone’s legs.”

Haitians abroad are using Web sites and social networking systems to look for family members, but on the devastated island nation itself, people are resorting to more primitive methods. Town criers drive through neighborhoods announcing the names of missing people and locations of relatives who are trying to find them.

The earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, when many workers were away from home. After buildings collapsed, dazed survivors cried out for loved ones and wandered past dead bodies in streets made unfamiliar by the huge heaps of rubble.

The impoverished country’s already poor communications system also collapsed, both because cellular telephone towers were toppled and because of an overload of calls from people trying to find family and friends.

Only one cellular network is working at the moment, and then only sporadically. Landline telephones are dead. Haitians once again are reduced to relying on “radio jol,” or bush radio, as they call the network that speedily spreads news by word of mouth.

The Red Cross launched a Web site Thursday for relatives and friends to post names of the missing. It quickly swelled to more than 18,000 names in just over 24 hours.

Officials also set up old-fashioned desks in Port-au-Prince where people could physically register missing people starting Sunday.

“People can give us information, and we do the footwork” of tracking them down and putting them in touch with family,” said Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.

There have been many remarkable rescues these past two days in Haiti. On Thursday, there was another.

When Reinhard Riedl heard the hotel had collapsed, he feared for his wife, Nadine Cardoso, a co-owner of the building.

His hopes were raised by a report that a man still in the rubble had indicated that she was alive. But when the man was rescued, it turned out he was talking about somebody else.

“I lost Nadine a second time, said Riedl, sitting outside the hotel.

Then, late Saturday afternoon, as rescuers worked to free three survivors trapped under rubble, his son said he heard his mother’s voice. Ecuadorean Red Cross workers said they heard a woman speaking French.

“It’s a little miracle. She’s one tough cookie. She is indestructible,” Riedl said.

While helmeted foreign rescue workers used search dogs, power saws and fiber-optic cameras to hunt for survivors, ordinary Haitians did the same with bare hands.

Untold thousands of families are missing loved ones.

“Everyone you talk to has a story,” Lerebours said. “The woman who works for me as a cook, she doesn’t know if her mother is alive.”

The cook’s sister called from the southern resort town of Jacmel on Wednesday to say the family home had been destroyed. “Then the phone line was cut. There’s been no communication since.”

Lerebours’ cook does not know where her sister and the sister’s four children are. The neighborhood where they lived in the Port-au-Price suburb of Nerette was destroyed.

“They couldn’t even find the house, there’s such a mess of rubble,” Lerebours said. “They couldn’t find anyone who could tell them what had happened.”

Nozile Claude, 38, was eager to distribute a list of survivors from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince’s Nazon district.

“Nine people died, and we have 56 survivors, some seriously injured, but the rumor’s going around that everyone was killed because the orphanage was flattened,” he said from one of the dozens of refugee camps that have sprung up across Port-au-Prince.

Some people have no hope, even though they have seen no bodies.

“We can’t find four members of our family, but I have no hope for them. So many people have disappeared,” said Benson Charles, a 21-year-old information technology student. “Twenty of us from my family managed to get out of the house after it collapsed. We couldn’t do anything for the others.”

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Associated Press videojournalist John Mone contributed to this report.

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On the net:

Red Cross site for missing people: http://www.familylinks.icrc.org

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