In Port-au-Prince, the Smell of Death, the Odor of Corruption

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Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty

A Haitian walks away with a bag of aid at an old military airfield in Port-au-Prince.

Women stroll down the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince with bulky bags of rice sitting on top of their heads. It's an image imprinted on the collective conscious of many Haitians, and behind these classic silhouette, there's an all too familiar story, even amid the extraordinary destruction of the Jan. 12 earthquake. With beads of sweat sliding down her face, 17-year-old Claire Fondnancy said she woke up at 4 in the morning to make her way up to Delmas to wait in line for three hours for her bag of rice. But it's not the wait that bothers her but the 250 Gourdes (or about $6) she had to pay for a carte or coupon. "We're obliged to buy the coupons because we can't find food," says the mother of a three-year old son.

The coupons are a part of the World Food Program distribution plan aimed at women and children. Theoretically, the program disseminates coupons to Haitian community leaders who then are supposed to give them out to the women of that community. But they are quickly becoming a commodity. The women tell me of places where I can go to find the men selling the cartes: the stadium, the gas station on the corner, all places where you go to meet the right people. It's clear relief has come hand in hand with Haiti's age-old, seemingly death-defying corruption. "Let the white people give out the coupons. The Haitians will just take them and sell them," says Josmen Jean, 25, who also made the journey for her 50 lbs bag of rice.

Haitians who've had to deal with the loss of their family members and their homes, now find fellow citizens profiting from their pain. But the hunger on the streets is growing. In the suburban city of Petion-ville, protesters wove in between cars chanting against the mayor Claire Lydia Parent. The demonstrators allege that Parent too is charging them 250 Gourdes for coupons for bags of rice. "She's keeping it in the depot so when elections come around she'll give the rice away. Then people will vote for her," says Danka Tranzil, 17. (Mayor Parent has said that food is constantly being distributed and that what people in the street may perceive as supplies being kept from them is actually being taken to other parts of the city in need.)

"Blocking the rice" is what the residents of the city are calling the halting relief efforts. There's so much blocking in the system that frustrated members of my family, neighbors, the man selling baguettes in the morning will tell you: "the government works against you, not for you." The Haitian government has tried to show some positive signs of life. There have been several distributions led by Haitian police officers dressed in khaki uniforms with official Haitian patches embroidered on their sleeves. But the presence of the law does not translate into order. One distribution site at the makeshift camps of the Place du Champ de Mars quickly erupted into a frenzy, with government workers throwing bags of rice into the crowds.

As important as rice is, the hottest commodity on the streets of Petion-ville is a tent. I think back to the $34.99 I paid at Target for my tent as I was preparing to make my way down to Haiti to visit my family and report on the earthquake's destruction. Now tents can sell on the street for a hundred dollars each, if you can find one. One woman says she'd been walking all day looking for one. She was dressed in a tight spandex lime green shirt, her hair neatly coiffed. She said she offered a man 1,500 Gourdes or $40 for one and he just laughed. "We are just making our homes out of sheets but what will happen when it rains?" she tells me. "What will we do?"

It's a question the Haitian government plans to answer with campsites in places like Croix-de-Bouquets, eight miles from the capital. The ground there has been plowed in preparation but much more headway has to be made. The rains will begin in a few weeks.

The signs in broken English say it all: "We need help, food, watar." One Haitian radio station S.O.S. gives Haitians the opportunity to voice where they are and what they need. One man calls in and says he's from Delmas 83 and says that their area has yet to receive any aid. A story all too familiar, as growl of bellies in the streets grow louder.