Matt Damon, Wyclef Jean visit Haiti city in ruins

September 14, 2008 3:19:03 PM PDT
There were cries of adulation - and also of hunger - as Matt Damon and Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean toured the flood-ravaged city of Gonaives on Sunday to call attention to a humanitarian crisis. Successive hits from one tropical storm and three hurricanes submerged the city and cut off roadways in and out. Where waters have receded, streets remained a stinking mud bath and homes were left with a carpet of muck and encrusted pots, pans and laundry.

As Damon and Jean surveyed the destruction from the back of a pickup truck in a U.N. convoy, a man on a bicycle followed as far as he could, shouting out, "Wyclef, I love you, Wyclef." Jean raised his hand, but couldn't bring himself to smile back.

"It's inhumane. I wish there was a word in the dictionary. No human should be living like this."

Catching first sight of flooded homes and people living on roofs with all their belongings, Damon also was at a loss.

"I'm speechless, I can't believe it," he said.

Damon and Jean are encouraging more people to help the United Nations raise more than US$100 million for an estimated 800,000 Haitians in need of aid after four devastating tropical storms and hurricanes since mid-August. He went to school shelter to dropped off cooking oil from USAID and bags of beans from the World Food Program.

A proud and restive city, Gonaives is where Haiti signed its declaration of independence from France in 1804 as the world's first black republic. Bloody protests here in 1985 led to the downfall of the father-son Duvalier dictatorship, and in 2004 a deadly march led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But Hurricane Ike provoked an exodus and flooded nearly every structure.

The Gonaives police buried dozens of unidentified corpses before they stopped counting the dead. Aid agencies are concerned about medical supplies at mobile clinics treating stomach ailments, respiratory problems and cuts and infections from people walking in flooded streets.

Damon and Jean later waded through knee-deep floodwaters and climbed a stage outside the Gonaives cathedral, where about 50 people have taken refuge in the choir balcony.

Jean, who lives in New York but remains a folk hero in Haiti, sang briefly and urged crowd to stay calm and organized.

"If you love Wyclef, yell 'help,"' said the singer and founder of the Yele Haiti philanthropic foundation.

The crowd surged the stage, and when Jean later tried to leave, people instead swept him out into the streets. Admirers clung to U.N. trucks as they drove away, some asking for money.

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