During the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince in January 2010, then-Colonel Ajax Porto Pinheiro commanded the Brazilian Battalion (BRABAT), which is part of the military contingent for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Almost seven years later, Lieutenant General Ajax, currently MINUSTAH force commander, found himself literally in the eye of the storm again: Hurricane Matthew.
The Category 4 meteorological phenomenon hit the southern coast of the Caribbean country with wind speeds greater than 140 miles/h, destroyed thousands of homes, knocked down trees and bridges, in addition to leaving more than 470 dead so far, according to local authorities.
With more than 25 years of national and international military experience, including having been military observer for the United Nations Observation Mission in El Salvador in 1992 and the United Nations Observation Group for Central America in 1991, among others, Lt. Gen. Ajax spoke to Diálogo about the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, and the efforts being developed by military troops from MINUSTAH to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Haitian people.
Diálogo: You were there at two of the biggest tragedies to hit Haiti, the 2010 earthquake and now Hurricane Matthew in 2016. What changed in terms of managing the humanitarian aid received in both of the tragedies, especially in terms of coordinating between various agencies, non-governmental organizations, U.S. Armed Forces, and MINUSTAH?
Lieutenant General Ajax Porto Pinheiro: The coordination now is more effective for two main reasons. Although the time was short, the hurricane was forecast, so it gave us time to put a structure in place to begin coordinating prior to the tragedy. It is different than the earthquake, which was not predicted. During the earthquake, the United Nations (UN) leadership was killed with the collapse of the Christopher building. In this instance, thank God, all personnel are here [in Port-au-Prince], able to execute their functions. So, the leaders of the UN, civilian and military, that were present at the time the hurricane hit, already knew what was going to happen. We anticipated the outcome, so I would say those are the two big differences and they involve greater coordination now. This doesn’t mean that everything works without problems. There were still failures in communication; the requests for support and security for convoys were a little disorganized. But we were able to adjust. Today [October 11th], the biggest convoy since this event occurred, is being sent, including 25 trucks with supplies that are headed for Les Cayes. It left at 5:00 a.m., with a company of our marines to provide security, because it is a very large and valuable convoy, meaning it is a target for attacks.
Diálogo: Do you mean that if there wasn’t protection, the cargo could be stolen, leaving only the truck to arrive at the destination?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Unfortunately, yes. Transporting a convoy of supplies with three trailers and 25 trucks, like that, from here to the south of Haiti, which is more than 150 miles away through winding roads that make access difficult, is something like a boat transporting blood in an ocean full of sharks. It never makes it to the final destination. So it is necessary to have security. There are gangs that attack along the way; they know that now is the time for supplies to pass through the area. If they see two trucks with NGO plates on the road, they know that there is a large supply of food and water on its way, so they are going to attack. Another problem is the population along the road, and at the destination, who are already impatient and going to want to have it all, which it is the objective. The goal is to arrive and distribute humanitarian aid to everyone.
Diálogo: Did the dialogue with the U.S. Armed Forces improve during these past years?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Yes. Tremendously. It has been excellent. I have continuous contact with [Rear] Admiral Cedric Pringle [U.S. Navy commander of Joint Task Force Matthew] and personnel at U.S. Southern Command. They [U.S. military personnel] are transporting the supplies via Chinook, Super Stallion, and Black Hawk helicopters. They leave from here and take humanitarian aid to Jeremie, one of the hardest hit capitals, as well as to locations further away, where there is not access by road.
Diálogo: How many men from the MINUSTAH contingent were deployed to the most affected areas?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: We have approximately 600 personnel there, and part stayed here, because we have to attend to our routine, like patrolling the neighborhood of Cité Soleil. Additionally, we have a reaction force, a company that is ready to move at any moment.
Diálogo: How and who made the decision to deploy 100 Brazilian Marines to the region that would be most affected by the hurricane, days before the storm hit?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: It was ours [MINUSTAH Joint Staff]. The initial decision to deploy them to Les Cayes was mine, so they could be there, waiting for the hurricane to pass, and then head towards Jeremie, because we knew that, historically, every time you have a tropical storm, the link between Jeremie and Les Cayes is interrupted. We already had that information, that is why I wanted them to be ready in Les Cayes. But the Joint Staff advised me not to do so because Les Cayes was some 13 miles from where the eye of the storm would be, significantly increasing the risk of being hit for our troops. The engineering equipment (large machines) would get hit by the strong winds, and they would have been destroyed. In the beginning, I did not agree with what my Joint Staff advised as I thought that the troops should go to Les Cayes however, later I was convinced to deploy them to a nearby location, to Miragoâne. In addition to being 35 miles from the eye of the hurricane, my staff assured me Miragoâne would be protected by the mountains on the opposite side of the hurricane’s projected path. It is inside the Gonave bay.
Diálogo: In retrospect, after the hurricane hit, do you think that this was the best decision?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Yes. I was convinced, and I ended up deploying the troops to the closest location possible. That was a decision freed us to get to the desired destination faster. In the end, Les Cayes was hit hardest. The base, the UN troops, police personnel that were stationed there, a Bangladesh platoon, all suffered greatly, including many damaged vehicles. I think they lost 10 vehicles. The UN has an advanced civilian base there that was damaged, and if our troops had gone to that location, we would have suffered great losses. So the decision of heading to Miragoâne was the best one. Between Miragoâne and the capital, Port-au-Prince, there is a city named Petit-GoÃ¢ve. There, a bridge was completely destroyed by the hurricane.
Diálogo: How were the troops able to arrive there?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Given the decision that we had made, we were ahead. The cities are located in sequence: Port-au-Prince, Petit-Goave, Miragoâne, and Les Cayes. We were in Miragoâne. Then, the bridge fell, but it was behind us, so the troops gained 24 hours, in addition to the time it would take to deploy to Miragoâne. So, the troops were free to move forward and arrive in Les Cayes a lot faster. Once there, they worked on the roads for three days – the Marines and the engineers – to remove debris from the landslides. It was because of our decision that they were able to arrive on Friday (October 7th), at about 11 a.m., and open the route for trucks to get through with humanitarian aid.
Diálogo: Is the bridge that was destroyed critical in that region?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Yes, exactly. We are working in conjunction with a local company that was contracted by the Haitian government, and with the U.S. military. As the water levels lowered, we were able to open access, a short cut, below, good enough for the four-wheel drive trucks to get through. There is the need for a half-mile-long metal bridge there, and I believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be responsible for building it. That is one of the viable solutions, but it won’t be immediate. It is going to take some time. Meanwhile, to maintain the flow, we are working on improving access because the riverbed is rocky. You can get through, but only if it is not raining. If it rains a lot there, it is going to interrupt the project.
Diálogo: Regarding the other Latin American military contingents that comprise MINUSTAH, which ones are participating in the disaster relief efforts?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Our troops in Haiti are based in 10 military units. Two are in the country’s north. The Chile Battalion, CHIBAT, is located in Cap-Haïtien with 440 men; the combined dual-flag Uruguayan-Peruvian Battalion, URUPERBAT, is located closer to the Dominican Republic, near Fort-Liberté, with 410 men. The sum of the two is equivalent to the Brazilian Battalion (BRABAT). These troops are in the north. They are not being utilized right now because the occupied area that was affected by the hurricane is in the southwest peninsula, which is exactly BRABATâ€™s area of responsibility. That is why the Brazilian troops are there. Because, if the hurricane had hit the north of the country too, and was exactly what we expected at first, those Chilean and Peruvian troops would also have been committed to this mission. All of the others are at our headquarters [Port-au-Prince]. Here, we have eight bases: BRABAT and the Brazilian engineering company, with 970 total men; a very well equipped Paraguayan engineering company with 80 men; a company that is the equivalent to the military police (MP), from Guatemala; a Filipino company, which provides support at the Camp Delta; and Long Base HQs, where the UN civilian leadership is based. It is a service company that provides support to the operation and administration of the UN. Also, the Argentine field hospital that continues to function is there, as well as two aviation units: one from Chile, CHIAVIATION, with two 1H-1H helicopters, and a Bangladeshi aviation unit with three helicopters and the capacity to transport 23 men. We have five helicopters.
Diálogo: Was the Argentine hospital moved to the area hardest hit by Matthew?
Lt. Gen Ajax: It is going to be moved effective October 11th. The intention was to have sent their equipment there already. The whole hospital is not going because its mission is to support UN civilian and military personnel, and they have very good direct service here. For example, on Sunday, [October 12th], we had an Uruguayan soldier and a Brazilian soldier come in with fractures. An accident occurred on the road to the hurricane area. The Uruguayan soldier returned from the north in bad shape, with an exposed fracture, and was treated at the Argentine hospital. So, they have to stay here. We are going to send their equipment to the disaster area, but before that happens, there needs to be a structure in place so personnel is able to perform minor surgeries and provide first aid for our troops and the UN civilians. The Argentine hospital only has 67 people to do everything. Despite that, we have to send part of the Argentine hospital to the most affected region, because we are expecting an increase in widespread cholera in the area, as well as dengue and zika. Our troops are on the action front, and they will be affected, principally by dengue and zika. As for cholera, we are able to maintain sanitary conditions for the troops. There is less probability of contamination, but with dengue, zika, and other airborne diseases it is almost impossible to protect 100 percent of the troops. That is why we are deploying some hospital personnel to the area.
Diálogo: According to the current UN mandate, MINUSTAH was scheduled to end now, in October. Do you think that, the presence of the foreign troops in Haiti will be extended due to the hurricane?
Lt. Gen. Ajax: Hervé Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, came here on June 30th and we briefed him on the situation in Haiti, including security, the future of Haitian National Police, and political stability. On August 31st, the UN Secretary General Ban-ki-moon, recommended that the Security Council extend the mission mandate, scheduled to end this coming Saturday, October 15th, for six more months, that is, until April 15, 2017. The UN has yet to make a decision, but I believe it will be extended for six more months.