SUNDAY HERALD - Sunday, December 17th, 2006.
HAITI'S FORGOTTEN TRAGEDY HAS NO END IN SIGHT
THE rattle of machine gunfire could be heard close by as overworked medical staff tended to a steady stream of the wounded at St Catherine’s Hospital.
Nearly noon it was another punishing working for doctors and nurses in Cite Soleil, a slum of 400,000 people in Port Au Prince, the capital city of Haiti.
“The fighting has been getting worse over the past few months and we are seeing around five to ten people each day with gunshot wounds, many of them women and children,” said Jacques Saint Fleur, medical director of the facility.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is one of the world’s forgotten tragedies and nearly a year into the office of President Rene Preval there continues to be a simmering crisis. With armed gangs still controlling parts of the capital, a moribund economy and officials accused of corruption still holding down positions of power, little has changed here for the poorest section of society. Unemployment is up at 70% and life expectancy is only 49 years. In Cite Soleil violence is endemic and armed gangs battle on the streets daily with Minustah, a UN peacekeeping force brought in after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and one that stands accused by the population of abuses. “We had good relations with the UN but not anymore. They’ve even shot at the hospital and the situation is getting worse as we don‘t have enough medicines to cope,” said Saint Fleur, who has 18 members of staff, including only three surgeons, for a population of nearly half a million people. Haiti experienced relative calm after Preval’s election victory in February, the first since Aristide was ousted by a bloody rebellion, but after the new government took power in May dozens of foreigners and Haitians have been kidnapped and tension has increased in Port Au Prince.
A recent report by The Roman Catholic Church said that between June and September at least 228 people died from gun violence, including 11 police officers, and the situation has become so dangerous that all aid agencies have pulled out of Cite Soleil except for Doctors Without Borders, an American charity called Hands Together and a Scottish charity called Mary’s Meals.
Preval, an Aristide protégé who was President from 1996 to 2001, was the poor’s overwhelming choice to replace Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s interim government, installed after Aristide was pushed from power. But in Cite Soleil, a bastion of support for Aristide, there is growing disenchantment that Preval has not improved conditions, not least from some of the 30 or so armed gang leaders who rule the streets. One calling himself Reginald, who controls an area named Norway in Cite Soleil, told the Sunday Herald that food and healthcare are urgently required for the general population and that the UN presence is exacerbating the problems. “Preval has not helped us and the UN did not come here to feed the people or to give them medicine. This is no life for us and we do not want our children growing up with violence.” The poverty is so dire that Cite Soleil has been dubbed the Calcutta of the Caribbean and in the tropical heat half a million Haitians survive in ramshackle huts made of rusting corrugated iron with no electricity, no running water and no sanitation. The population live beside their pigs and malnourished children play on mounds of rubbish teeming with disease. Father Tom Hagan, a priest who has worked in Cite Soleil with Hands Together for more than a decade and who is helping Mary’s Meals to provide food for children, says there has to be talks between the leaders of the community and Minustah to stop the violence.
“We had one of our schools shot at recently and Hands Together has had two people killed. Both sides need to speak to each other.” Minustah, which has 8400 personnel in Haiti, has had 20 people killed, most recently last month when two Jordanian soldiers were gunned down. It says that in two years the peacekeeping force has overseen an entire democratic process and that Haiti now has an elected President and an elected parliament. There was also voting earlier this month when 29,000 candidates across Haiti stood in municipal elections. But violence erupted during voting and an off-duty police officer was killed and several people wounded. Police said they arrested several who tried to enter polling centres with guns or were involved in electoral fraud.
(Copyright Billy Briggs, 2006)