Haitian medical evacuation flights, schools resume

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The U.S. military has resumed urgent medical evacuation flights for Haitian quake victims, an official announced today, and life for survivors took a step toward normalcy as many schools reopened for the first time since an earthquake devastated the nation.

U.S. Army Col. Gregory Kane said a medical evacuation flight left Haiti for the United States Sunday night, almost five days after the flights were suspended by squabbling over space and health costs at American public hospitals.

“They have resumed,” Kane said. He said he had no details.

The U.S. military had another plane ready to go today with a capacity for 15 patients, said the chief medical officer at the University of Miami field hospital in Haiti, Dr. Mike Sheehan.

“We have a list of seven people who would probably die within 48 hours if they don’t get out of here,” he told The Associated Press.

The White House said it was resuming the military airlift of critically injured earthquake victims after being assured that additional medical capacity exists in U.S. hospitals. The halt of flights on Wednesday worried doctors in Haiti who said hundreds could die without specialized care.

Many public schools reopened today for the first time since the Jan. 12 earthquake, but most were still closed even in outlying provinces where damage was minimal. And in the capital, schoolchildren will likely be on the streets for months, government officials warned.

The government said today it expected most provincial schools to reopen by Feb. 8 — instead of today as anticipated by many families.

Anne Rose Bouget, a primary school teacher in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, said schools reopened there with more students than usual because some 300,000 people, including many schoolchildren, fled Port-au-Prince after the quake.

Also today, Haitian officials were trying to determine what to do with 10 U.S. Baptists who were arrested on Friday for trying to take 33 children out of the country without permission from the government.

The church members, most from Idaho, said they were just trying to rescue orphaned victims of the quake, but their action came at a moment of rising concern that quickie adoptions could permanently separate Haitian children from their parents, or expose them to exploitation.

Haiti’s communications minister said the government was in talks with U.S. diplomats about sending the Baptists to the U.S. for prosecution because Haiti’s court system was crippled by the quake.

Most of Haiti’s schools are damaged or destroyed. Many teachers are dead. And the students in starched uniforms and blue hair ribbons who were visions of hope and innocence in Haiti’s capital now often live in squalid camps, their dreams and city shattered.

“With everything that has already happened in the past few years — the floods, hurricanes, unrest — these children cannot afford to lose more time outside school,” said Berdadel Perkington, 40, a teacher giving an impromptu math lesson to a group of children outside the collapsed National Palace.

“The children are in shock and they are traumatized,” said Marie-Laurence Jocelin Lassegue, minister of culture and communications. “Some of them have lost their friends, their parents. It’s like the end of the world for some of them.”

Kent Page, a spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, children need to get back to class so they have a sense of normalcy.

“None of us like being out of school,” said Ludmia Exiloud, 14, who was walking with a group of her friends at dawn on Monday, when they usually are headed to class. “We miss our studies. There’s nothing to do.”

But schools — reopening them, re-staffing them, restocking them,relocating them — are just one of many urgent priorities here. The Ministry of Education — its own building destroyed — is still assessing damage.

In the long term, UNICEF hopes to boost overall school enrollment. Child welfare groups say just over half of all school-age children in Haiti don’t attend school, though even the poorest of Haitian families try to send at least one child to class — hoping they will someday earn enough to support extended family.

For some, though, the quake robbed them of any hope.

“They’ve cut off my leg,” said Billie Flon, 9, a quake amputee who stoically explained that he now needs to beg for money in Petionville, a hilly suburb of Port-au-Prince, to help his family because its house was destroyed. He said he can’t think about returning to school now.

Another young boy who had his leg amputated after the earthquake begged on an adjacent corner.

In the camps for earthquake victims, some children try in vain to keep up with their studies.

“I’m reading when I can, but the conditions are very bad so sometimes I read cartoons instead of my school books,” said Erika Desire, a 13-year-old whose school was destroyed and who lives in a camp with her mother and sisters. “I want to be a medical technician, but now it’s going to take me more time.”

During her short life, she estimates she’s lost about a year’s worth of school — four months in 2004 when rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, another month in 2005 because of sickness, two months in 2006 because of tropical storms and three months in floods last year.

The earthquake will force her to lose at least two months more.

High school senior Graham Fleuran, meanwhile, said he is eager to take Senegal up on its offer to relocate.

Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, offered free land to Haitians wishing to return to their African origins. Many of the slaves brought to Haiti came from West Africa. Practical details of how the plan would work have yet to be released.

“My mother died in the earthquake and my father is still missing,” said Fleuran, who spoke in precise English and carried a backpack of school books — his only possessions.

“Leaving Haiti may give me the best opportunity to get back to my studies. I dream of becoming a lawyer.”

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