CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti – A cargo ship bearing nearly 2,000 tons of rice, beans and oil docked at this northern city Friday, promising relief for thousands of Haitians desperate for food in the aftermath of a rebel uprising.
The shipment from the U.N. World Food Program (search) was the largest aid delivery to the north since Haiti's crisis erupted last month.
"If there were no shipments it would result in immediate misery," said Rev. Michel Chery, a 63-year-old priest who runs a primary school in the nearby rural area of Limonade.
The food allows his school to provide hundreds of students with a daily meal of rice, beans and fish. Friday's shipment came just in time. During the night, residents stole 15 of the 27 bags of food the school had left over from the last WFP shipment.
Life has always been more of a struggle in Haiti's deforested, flood-prone and isolated north. But it has become much more difficult since rebels chose the region as the launchpad for last month's armed revolt.
When the rebels took Cap-Haitien (search), the second-largest city, jubilant residents looted 800 tons of food from a U.N. World Food Program warehouse, and rebels did little to stop them.
As the rebellion expanded, the insurgents blocked two main highways in the north, preventing food and fuel deliveries and worsening already desperate conditions.
The revolt ended when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) stepped down and went into exile Feb. 29. More than 300 people were killed during the uprising, but the situation in the north could claim more lives.
For weeks, northerners have been trying to make do without clean drinking water, electricity, food and basic health care. Aid workers estimate nearly 270,000 people need food aid in the north, and some babies already are dying.
"Things are so expensive," said Dardy Louis, a 31-year-old mother of four who ekes out a living selling green beans. "It's always hard to find food for the kids."
For weeks, northerners have been trying to make do without clean drinking water, food supplies and basic health care.
"I look forward to school everyday so my belly can be full," said Fabiola Martelus, 12, who wants to be a nun when she grows up. She has 14 siblings and lives in Limonade outside Cap-Haitien where few have jobs and most struggle to survive.
The ship bore cargo containers carrying 1,700 tons of rice, beans, cooking oil and other staples. After the food is secured and unloaded, it will be distributed to schools, hospitals and poor families, said Inigo Alvarez, a WFP spokesman.
French troops patrolling outside the gated port planned to secure the shipment once it is moved to the WFP warehouse, said Maj. Xavier Pons, a spokesman for the French forces.
The shipment will help feed more than 180,000 people, going mainly to programs at schools, where tens of thousands of children get their only meal of the day, WFP spokesman Alejandro Chicheri said.
"Some residents and schools have gone for five weeks without food," Chicheri said.
Doctors say babies have become the first victims.
"Most of the malnourished children we see have got to the hospital too late. Many end up dying," said Dr. Anthony Constant, director of the region's main hospital in the city of 500,000.
Ten babies died here this month, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, Dr. Floride Douyon said. Two more died Thursday, born prematurely, probably to malnourished mothers, maternity nurses said.
The new U.S.-backed interim government appears in no position to help, announcing a budget deficit Thursday of at least $75 million.
"The state is virtually bankrupt," Cabinet Minister Robert Ulysse told reporters.
He said officials planned to meet international donors April 14 to ask them to free millions of dollars of aid frozen when Aristide was in power.
With local government offices abandoned in much of the country, humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N. World Food Program, Oxfam and others are stepping in to provide emergency relief.
"Vulnerable people, especially children, cannot wait. They need the food now," Guy Gauvreau, Haiti director for WFP, said Thursday. "As long as there is political instability in Haiti, both the number of people in need of food aid and the amount of funding required to help them will increase."