Emaciated girl helped by Haiti food aid

Haiti Food Crisis
At right, Venecia Louis, 4, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Nov. 19. At left, Venecia Louis while recovering from malnutrition on Dec. 11. Ramon Espinosa / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was late afternoon and the young mother was hiding in the kitchen of her banana-thatch shack, lighting a cooking fire she hoped her neighbors would not see — she gets food aid while they must scrounge to eat.

Her 4-year-old daughter — whose sunken eyes drew worldwide attention in an Associated Press photograph that showed her dangling limply from the strap of a scale — grinned in anticipation.

It's been a month since little Venecia Louis got emergency treatment for malnutrition, and now she is walking, playing and even has a pinch of baby fat on her cheeks.

Venecia was among dozens of children suffering from severe malnutrition who were airlifted from this remote region in Haiti's southeast to hospitals in Port-au-Prince after 26 children died from starvation here.

As a result, Venecia and her family now get just enough food aid to scrape by.

Venecia smiled last week as her mother, Rosemen Saint-Juste, prepared a can and a half of rice that would be dinner for six people. She has gained some weight and her arms are plumper after treatment with antibiotics, anti-worm medications and enriched milk. But she is by no means cured from her life-threatening bout with malnutrition.

Mother hoards what she can
The child's 30-year-old mother hoards what she can to protect her children's health but says she must give away some to the hungry families who live nearby or risk their revenge — by physical attack or the Voodoo spell she believes they might cast to kill her children.

"The food I have is going to last for three days" instead of four, she said after giving away some of her rice. "If I don't share it with my neighbors, the devil will eat my kids."

Four tropical storms that killed 793 people in August and September and caused $1 billion in damage made Haiti's ongoing food crisis even worse. Crops were wiped out and mountain roads destroyed, cutting farmers off from markets where they sell their crops and buy food for their children.

Little attention had been paid to the villages around Baie d'Orange, located on a muddy plateau 6,000 feet above the Caribbean, until doctors from nearby cities alerted the international aid groups Terre des Hommes about deaths and severe malnutrition there.

An AP report on the crisis and photos of Venecia, who was initially identified by the hospital as Venecia Lonis, and other severely malnourished children brought an outpouring of offers of help.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, Democrat of Los Angeles, cited the AP report in urging the U.S. Agency for International Development to search for any Haitian children in danger of starvation and pledged to follow up with the Haitian ambassador and President Rene Preval. Two church congregations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that raised $18,000 were among many groups moved by their plight.

Aid groups step up work
In response to the children's deaths, aid groups have stepped up their work in this isolated pocket that in some places lies just over a peak from the capital's richest suburbs — but a six-hour trek over a circuitous mountain highway, washed-out bridges and unmarked goat paths.

The U.N. World Food Program now feeds 5,000 people here every two weeks, delivering food primarily by helicopter. USAID has increased its nutrition programs by $4.5 million nationwide.

Medical aid organizations Doctors Without Borders and Medicins du Monde have set up clinics as they scour the region for more pockets of hunger. They have not found any as severe as Baie d'Orange, according to a Doctors Without Borders spokesman, Francois Servranckx.

Still, the donations are merely a stopgap measure, residents say. Far more critical is support for rebuilding their fields so they can feed themselves.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization delivered seeds to about 400 families last month, and Oxfam is also distributing farm aid. But the farmers say they are not getting what they need most — supplies to restore their barren fields.

"If they give us seeds and they don't give us fertilizer, we can't grow anything," said Enock Augustin, whose severely malnourished 5-year-old daughter, Bertha, was also hospitalized last month.

Seed costs have tripled
A single sack, enough to cover half an acre for a three-month growing cycle, costs $62.50, he said — more than twice what most Haitians make in a month. And the price has tripled over the past three years.

Both of Saint-Juste's young daughters show signs of extreme protein deficiency — distended stomachs, protruding ribs and frail limbs. But it was Venecia who turned dangerously ill.

For a month, the mother watched as her daughter's frail body swelled and the circles under her eyes darkened. With no money and no hospital nearby, she could only pray as word spread of children dying.

Finally Saint-Juste heard that Doctors Without Borders had come to the region. Carrying Venecia, she walked for hours from their village of Mabrignol to the makeshift clinic, and the child was airlifted by helicopter Nov. 9 to the aid group's hospital in Port-au-Prince.

"I didn't think she was going to make it to the hospital," Saint-Juste said. The child stayed there for 15 days.

Now home, the girl nicknamed "Manushka" scrambles to keep up with her older siblings, wearing a smudged gray Eeyore sweat shirt. The circles have faded under her eyes, and a healthier color has returned to her cheeks.

Stomach remains swollen
But like her 6-year-old sister Minush, her stomach remains swollen. Their 14-month-old brother, Roselin, is pale and listless. Only the eldest, 9-year-old Silner, appears in reasonably good health.

Saint-Juste and her children huddle each night on a single cot in their shack of dried banana stalks; their former home was burned down by thieves while Saint-Juste was with Venecia at the hospital. Her two eldest children narrowly escaped.

The children's father, a shoeshine named Edner Louis, lives in Port-au-Prince and sometimes sends money. Saint-Juste also earns a ration of food and about 62 cents a day working in her neighbors' fields during the spring.

On Thursday, volunteers from the Greater Works Outreach church in Monroeville, Pa., and St. John's United Methodist Church in Turnersville, N.J., distributed food and other aid to some 600 people in nearby Baie d'Orange.

Emaciated children and desperate parents rushed a balcony to grab peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, rice, beans and canned fish.

As they handed out the food, Venecia — the little girl whose image had inspired their generosity — was just a few miles away. Her mother did not know a distribution was going on.