U.N. investigators took samples of foul-smelling waste
trickling behind a Nepalese peacekeeping base toward an infected river system
on Wednesday, following persistent accusations that excrement from the newly
arrived unit caused the cholera epidemic that has sickened more than 4,000
people in the earthquake-ravaged nation.
Associated Press journalists who were visiting the base
unannounced happened upon the investigators. Mission spokesman Vincenzo
Pugliese confirmed after the visit that the military team was testing for
cholera - the first public acknowledgment that the 12,000-member force is
directly investigating allegations its base played a role in the outbreak.
Meanwhile the epidemic continued to spread, with cases
confirmed in two new departments in Haiti's north and northeast, said U.N.
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Imogen Wall. At
least 303 people have died and 4,722 been hospitalized.
International aid workers and the United Nations are
focusing their efforts on stemming the spread of the outbreak, which was first
noted on Oct. 20. But Haitians are increasingly turning their attention to its
origins: How did a disease which has not been seen in Haiti since the early
20th Century suddenly erupt in the countryside?
The mission strongly denies its base was a cause of the
infection. Pugliese said civilian engineers collected samples from the base on
Friday which tested negative for cholera and the mission's military force
commander ordered the additional tests to confirm. He said no members of the
Nepalese battalion, whose current members arrived in early October for a
six-month rotation, have the disease.
The unit's commander declined to comment.
Local politicians including a powerful senator and the
mayor of Mirebalais are pointing the finger at the Nepalese peacekeeping base,
which is perched above a source of the Meille River, a tributary to the
Artibonite River on Haiti's central plateau. The Artibonite River has been the
source of most infections, which remain concentrated in the rural area
surrounding it - mostly down river from the mouth of the Meille.
"They are located exactly where the sickness
started," Mirebalais Mayor Laguerre Lochard, who is also running for
Senate, told the AP. Area residents are also blaming the base; a young man
walked its gate laughing and chanting, "Co-co-cholera. Cholera
MINUSTAH" - referring to the peacekeeping mission by its French initials.
Cholera is pandemic in much of the world but almost
unheard of in the Western Hemisphere. It is endemic to Nepal, which suffered
outbreaks this summer. A recent article in the Japanese Journal of Infectious
Diseases about outbreaks in 2008-09 said the strain found by researchers was
"Vibrio cholerae O1 Ogawa biotype El Tor."
That is the same strain that has been identified in
Haiti, epidemiologist Eric Mintz of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention told the AP. But he cautioned that strain is common and description
too general to be a "smoking gun" that would identify the strain's
country of origin.
The CDC is not directly investigating the base, spokesman
David Daigle said.
The U.N. issued a statement on Tuesday defending the
base. It said the Nepalese unit there uses seven sealed septic tanks built to
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, emptied every week by a private
company to a landfill site a safe 820 feet (250 meters) from the river.
But those are not the conditions AP found on Wednesday.
A buried septic tank inside the fence was overflowing and
the stench of excrement wafted in the air. Broken pipes jutting out from the
back spewed liquid. One, positioned directly behind latrines, poured out a
reeking black flow from frayed plastic pipe which dribbled down to the river
where people were bathing.
The landfill sites, across the street, are a series of
open pits uphill from family homes. Ducks swim and pigs wallow in pools of
runoff. The pits abut a steep slope which heads straight down to the river,
with visible signs where water has flowed during recent heavy rains.
The people who live nearby said both the on-base septic
tank and the pits constantly overflow into the babbling stream where they
bathe, drink and wash clothes.
"The water is no good at all. You shouldn't wash in
it," said Jean-Paul Chery, a sand miner who lives near the human-waste
pits with his wife and five children.
Lochard, the mayor, said he had told Nepalese officers
not to place the landfill sites in that location but never received feedback
from peacekeeping headquarters in Port-au-Prince.
Pugliese denied that the reeking black flows from the
base were human waste, saying that the only liquid investigator was testing
came from kitchens and showers. He said the pipes had only been exposed for the
tests, though he could not explain why the liquid inside them was allowed to
flow toward the river.
The samples were collected in mid-morning by uniformed
military personnel, who scooped black liquid into clear jars with U.N. sky-blue
lids. About a half hour later, as AP and Al Jazeera journalists stood by, the
Nepalese troops began hacking around the septic tank with pickaxes and covered
the exposed pipe jutting from behind the fence, but did not plug it.
Then tanker trucks from the contractor, Sanco Enterprises
S.A., arrived to drain the septic tank and dump their contents across the
street in the waste pits. As the septic tain drained, the flows behind the base
The waste company's CEO, Marguerite Jean-Louis,
accompanied the trucks in an air-conditioned white pickup truck. She declined
to comment, citing her contract with the U.N.