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 four-year-old daughter — whose sunken eyes drew worldwide attention in a 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.
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 US$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.
US Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of Los Angeles, cited the report in urging the US 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.
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 UN World Food Program now feeds 5,000 people here every two weeks, delivering food primarily by helicopter. USAID has increased its nutrition programs by US$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.
Still, the donations are merely a stopgap measure, residents say.
Far more critical is support for rebuilding their fields so they can feed themselves.