PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — The corpses lie on sidewalks and on the edges of shattered buildings, in pits on the sides of the road and in muddy puddles in the center of the street.
In neighborhood after neighborhood across this shattered capital, the same horrific signs of death can be seen, a relentless reminder of the scale of the tragedy and the struggles of the relief efforts to alleviate it.
Three days after this impoverished Caribbean nation was hit by its fiercest earthquake in two centuries, rescue teams have yet to succeed in one of the most fundamental tasks: clearing up the dead.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of corpses are still in public view, covered only by white sheets as they decompose in the scorching sun.
In some cases, residents have taken it into their own hands to dispose of the cadavers, incinerating them with burning tires, unleashing reams of black smoke that make passersby cover their faces with scarves and T-shirts.
In another horrific incident, residents pulled corpses into a pile to block a central street as a protest at the lack of action on the cadavers.
The inability of authorities to solve this deadly health risk underlines the challenges in bringing relief to the millions hit by the disaster in this impoverished nation.
At the center of the problem is the collapse of Haitian government infrastructure from the earthquake, which destroyed the presidential palace, seven ministries and the senate building (with most of the lawmakers inside).
“The reality is that there is virtually no functioning government here right now. Foreign governments have to organize their own aid efforts without any central coordination,” said a diplomat from a foreign power here, who asked his name not be used.
The lack of government can be seen in many basic areas. Stop lights were down and traffic conductors were absent across the city, leaving a heaving gridlock of cars and trucks.
Amid this standstill, many aid vehicles were snared up in traffic, as were trucks trying to pull the corpses out.
The security situation was also fragile. As night fell on Thursday, gangs broke into shuttered stores in a central shopping area, pushing and shoving over the spoils while no police were in sight.
However, only a small minority took part in such looting, while most here were focused on trying save and tend to the living, albeit with little help from the authorities.
Groups of residents and workers spontaneously organized to try and pull survivors out of the collapsed buildings, descending on the debris with any sledge hammers, mallets and chisels they could lay their hands on.
In a children’s hospital, a group of some 15 men searched for the clinic director who was in his first floor office when five levels tumbled down. “We will get him out soon,” said Pierre Josef, resting after swinging a hammer through the crumbling concrete.
Thousands of others set up their own makeshift refugee camps in any spaces they could find, including soccer fields, sidewalks and the patios of offices and hotels.
Hauling up sheets on sticks and tires, families sat and shared what little food they had and tried to tend to their sick.
Miriam Le Blanc, a 23-year-old housewife, moved frantically to try and attend to her two children and her husband, whose jaw had been shattered when their home collapsed on Tuesday. He had been bandaged up and given drugs, but Le Blanc said he needed hospital treatment.
“He is in so much pain and he seems to be getting worse,” she said, as he lay under the sheet wincing.
Medical relief workers say the lack of hospital facilities is the central problem they face in trying to heal the injured here.
Several Haitian hospitals were destroyed in the quake and many doctors and were killed. Many of the injured are also scared to go into enclosed buildings, with more tremors being felt on Thursday and Friday morning.
As a result, most people with broken bones, fractured limbs and other injuries are being treated in the makeshift camps.
Liviu Verasco, who is coordinating the International Medical Corps mission to the disaster zone, says many of the suffering will need more serious surgery to save their lives.
“Many people have died of quite simple infections,” Verasco said. “Others need amputations to save them. And you can’t carry out an amputation in one of these camps.”
Verasco says they are coordinating with local directors to try and get some more hospitals up and running but are fighting an uphill battle.
“We are trying to figure out how to move people to where they can get treatment. There are very few ambulances here,” said Verasco, who has been working in relief efforts for 15 years.
“These disasters are always messy. We will probably never know how many people have died here.”