SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY, Sunday, April, 22nd, 2007
In the line of fire
AT St Catherine's Hospital, Mogina is sitting up in bed. The 62-year-old has a dressing over a bullet wound above her left breast. She cries out in pain and lifts her hand to her brow as she tells me how, the day before, she was shot outside her front door. Mogina claims the bullet was fired by UN soldiers as they sped past in an armoured truck. "I didn't see them quickly enough to take cover," she says. "They seemed to be firing at anything."
In the next ward lies 14-year-old Mackenson. The boy has a dressing on his neck, and has been waiting four days for an operation to remove a bullet. Mackenson pulls the bandage to the side to show us the metal stuck inside him. He is unable to speak, but his friend tells us the boy was shot in his home, where he was seeking refuge from a gun battle raging in the street.
Mogina and Mackenson are just two innocent victims of the violence engulfing a notorious shantytown called Cité Soleil, in Port-au- Prince, the capital of Haiti. Sun City, as the French name ironically translates, is a teeming slum barely one square mile in size. It is home to nearly 400,000 people, squeezed into a pocket of land next to the sea. As the tropical sun beats down, they bake in their ramshackle huts without electricity, running water or proper sanitation. The slum has been dubbed the Calcutta of the Caribbean, and the misery for the beleaguered inhabitants is exacerbated by daily gun battles between the gangs that rule the streets and a UN peacekeeping force that stands accused of human-rights abuses.
We are here a year after the first democratic elections since former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody coup in 2004. We want to meet the gangs who are at war with the UN, and to find out why one of the world's forgotten crises continues to simmer. Politically affiliated militias, often with quasi-official powers, have been a feature of Haitian politics throughout history, and much of the violence between leftist and government forces has centred on Cité Soleil. To many in the community here, the gang leaders are viewed as freedom fighters; to the UN they are murderers, pure and simple.
The UN force, known by the acronym Minustah (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti), was established in April 2004 to promote peace and stability in the wake of Aristide's departure. In recent weeks, though, soldiers have stepped up an offensive against what they call illegally armed rebels inside Cité Soleil. But according to residents of the slum, UN forces attacked their neighbourhood in the early morning of December 22, 2006, and killed 30 people - including women and children.
For many here, this felt like a repeat of a military operation on July 6, 2005, when at least 26 people were killed in a successful assassination attempt on gang leader Emmanuel 'Dread' Wilmer and four of his closest followers. Wilmer was openly hostile to the UN military presence in Haiti, and had led an armed resistance
Although the nation experienced relative calm after President René Preval's election victory in February 2006, in the first democratic elections since Aristide left power, dozens of foreigners and Haitians have been kidnapped since then and tension has escalated in Port-au-Prince. It has been reported that between June and September last year at least 228 people died from gunshot wounds, including 11 police officers. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that nearly all the international aid agencies have pulled out of Cité Soleil.
Preval had been the poor's overwhelming choice, but these days there is growing disenchantment and accusations that he has done little to improve dire living conditions in the country. On top of that, the gangs accuse the UN of failing to remain politically neutral, and with Haiti's tumultuous history it may only be a matter of time before Cité Soleil erupts in fury once more.
DRIVING into the Braneuff zone of Cité Soleil, we pass a convoy of white UN armoured personnel-carriers at the roadside. As we slow, one soldier nods his head and puts a hand to his blue helmet in acknowledgement, while another glowers and spits out his gum in our direction. The yellow-and-green flag of Brazil on the side of their vehicles indicates where these troops have come from.
Our safe passage in this volatile shantytown comes through an American priest, Father Tom Hagan, who has worked here for more than a decade. He is something of a hero to the community - his organisation, Hands Together, provides food and education for thousands of people who would otherwise have neither. Despite the priest's standing, a dozen members of his staff have been murdered. "It has been very difficult at times, and I would not say that Haiti is one of my favourite places," he says. "But the people here are desperate."
Father Tom's efforts have saved many lives, and so the gangs, over time, have come to trust and respect this remarkable Philadelphian - so much so that he recently succeeded in obtaining an unprecedented proclamation of non-violence from a number of them in the hope that it might end the killings. However, the gesture proved fruitless. "The problem is that the UN and the government are not interested in speaking with these people. Believe me, I have tried," says the priest, wearily.
Cité Soleil is split into 34 sections, each run by a different gang. He describes Belony, the Braneuff leader we are about to meet, as "cautious and wise". We park and walk about half a mile to enter the neighbourhood, before clambering over a huge pile of boulders to gain access to a narrow street; the rocks are a blockade to prevent UN vehicles from entering.
Almost immediately, two youths appear and start speaking in Creole with Father Tom. They are Belony's lieutenants, and guide us away from the main drag and through a number of narrow passageways. We arrive outside the iron gate of a building under construction, to be greeted by Belony and a bodyguard. Belony is one of Minustah's most wanted men, and is accused of being responsible for several kidnappings. He denies the charges.
Belony claims that the previous leader of Braneuff, Dread Wilmer, was assassinated by Minustah because of his left-wing politics and the support he drew from the people of Cité Soleil. "The gangs used to fight each other, but Dread brought them together - so they [Minustah] took him out. He was a passionate man who worked for the people. The UN came in with tanks and helicopters - 96 people died, including three babies. The international community needs to know about this massacre," he says.
I tell him that the UN claims only five people were killed. But all three men beside me, including Father Tom, insist the death toll was much higher.
"We thought Preval would change things for the better, but nothing has changed," says Belony. He admits to owning a gun, but says he only carries it to protect himself because he is a target of Minustah, and that he recently handed in some weapons to the soldiers as a gesture of goodwill. "This cannot continue. We need peace," he says.
We leave Braneuff and drive to meet a man whom Father Tom describes as being the godfather of all Cité Soleil's gangs. His name is Amahal, and he runs the Bellecourt zone. Along with Belony, he is top of the UN's wanted list.
At the border of Amahal's territory we pass a boy of about 12 with a Kalashnikov rifle strapped to his back. A group of youths begins to follow our vehicle on foot. The Bellecourt zone runs down to the sea, and we stop beside a newly built cemetery not far from the black, toxic shore to await Amahal's arrival. About ten minutes later, he appears on a moped. He is a tall, broad, chunky man with short dreadlocks, and the moped seems to sag under his weight. He denies being a gangster, referring to himself instead as a community leader. "We are portrayed as ruthless killers who run drugs and cause mayhem. Look at this place - how could anyone afford drugs here? People cannot even afford cigarettes. We have no jobs, no money, no food," he says.
Amahal shares Belony's political viewpoint, and agrees that the situation in Cité Soleil is deteriorating. "We had hope for Preval, but not any more. The UN has done nothing to help the people of Cité Soleil," he says. But would he be willing to sit down with the UN to find a way to stop the violence? "Yes, I would. I am a Christian and a democrat, and this situation cannot continue."
OVER the next few days, we meet dozens more residents of Cité Soleil and several other gang leaders. We hear more about hunger and poverty, and more allegations of human-rights abuses by Minustah. What most people here want to tell us, though, is that they crave peace.
Zorro, the leader of Cité Soleil's largest section, Boston, takes us to meet 11-year-old Marie Michelle Gabriela. She shows us a wound to her left wrist, which she claims came from a UN bullet.
Louidor, the 22-year-old leader of Section 26, wears an orange wristband inscribed with the words 'Depoze zam', Creole for 'Put down your guns'. He says he is sick of the violence and wants to train to be a car mechanic.
Damassene, a tall, gangly youth who has been leader of Section Four for five years, also says he would like to sit down with the UN to try to thrash out a peace deal. "We need housing and development, and the people need a life better than this," he says.
These are not the hardened killers I had expected to meet. Father Tom, indeed, describes them all as young men who have been forced into violence. "They are not angels," he says, "but they are essentially good people who have been demonised."
On our last day, Reginald, the 23-year-old leader of a section called Norway by the Sea, takes us to meet a women and her six children. This is probably the poorest part of Cité Soleil, and we are followed around by a mass of naked children with copper-tinged hair, a sign of malnutrition. At the one-room shack she calls home, 32-year-old Gerta Jean cries as she tells me that her husband Enel was shot by the UN in 2005. She has no means to support her family, who range in age from six to 16 years old. How does she feed her children? "I beg, and the people here help us," she says.
Reginald appears genuinely distressed at the living conditions of his community. Later, at his home, he takes out a Colt 45 pistol and lays it down on the bed. "This is no life. We do not want our children to live like this," he says. Reginald, who has two young daughters, says he lives apart from his girlfriend and children because he worries that they will be shot by Minustah.
Elsewhere, the deaths of other children go almost unremarked. One day we see the bodies of two drowned infants by the road. A crowd has gathered around them - but no one claims them. The small bodies are tangled up in plastic bags and rocks and there is some speculation. Did they fall into the river while playing? Were they murdered? Who are they? No one seems to know. But we're told that such deaths are not uncommon in this tragic place.
ON January 7, 2006, Urano Texeira da Matta Bacellar, the Brazilian general in charge of Minustah, was found dead in his hotel room in Port-au-Prince. The 58-year-old had his pistol in his hand and a bullet through his head. According to the police and the UN, this apparently happily married man with 39 years' army service killed himself on the eve of what was supposed to be Haiti's crucial presidential election. A few days before, the elections had been postponed for the fourth time amid the daily killings and kidnappings that had spiralled after Aristide was forced into exile.
General Bacellar commanded 7,265 Minustah troops, a force made up of soldiers from 20 different nations. They had been deployed to restore peace as the supporters and opponents of Aristide battled in the wake of the ousted president's departure.
At the time of his death, the general was under severe pressure as the head of a force accused of massacring civilians in July 2005 - although this is an allegation strongly denied by the UN. He was also accused of failing to root out corrupt Haitian police officers, and of being unable to halt the kidnappings. A year on, Minustah, now led by another Brazilian, Major-General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, is still in a quagmire, and the violence in Cité Soleil continues unabated.
Sophie Botuad-de-la-Combe, a spokesman for Minustah at the UN mission in Haiti, defends the peacekeepers' role and strenuously denies that soldiers target civilians. "Gunfire comes from gang members in Cité Soleil on a daily basis," she says. "They target UN workers, soldiers and civilians in an attempt to disrupt the progress of the country." Minustah soldiers, she adds, abide by international laws and follow rules of engagement that include the right of self-defence and to return fire.
During the first two weeks of January this year, she says, food and water were distributed to 2,875 citizens, clothing and materials were distributed to 670 people, and medical assistance was provided to 1,088 civilians. The beneficiaries of this aid include schools, orphanages and hospitals in Port-au-Prince, including Cité Soleil. In addition, she says, new roads have been built, and in Cité Soleil engineers are constructing a fish market. "The assistance to Cité Soleil from 2005 to the end of 2007 is likely to exceed 1.35 million."
In January, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said Haiti will continue to face significant challenges in 2007, but recommended that Minustah should remain. In February, Minustah's mandate was extended for another eight months. Brian Nichols, director of the US state department's office of Caribbean affairs, says the UN is "working to facilitate a secure environment for good governance and economic development that is essential for Haiti's lasting stability and prosperity".
BACK in St Catherine's Hospital, the crackle of gunfire can be heard nearby. It is nearly noon, but already the doctors and nurses have had a punishing day, with dozens of people waiting to be treated. The place resembles a field hospital in a war zone. As well as treating people with TB, diabetes, malaria, HIV, heart disease and malnutrition, the medical staff here are now experts on gunshot wounds. "The fighting has been getting worse, and we are seeing around five to ten people each day with gunshot wounds, many of them women and children," says Jacques Saint-Fleur, medical director here for the past three years.
Drugs such as painkillers are in short supply at St Catherine's, and Saint-Fleur bemoans the fact that this centre is one of only a couple of facilities offering healthcare for Cité Soleil's population of nearly half a million. He explains that because most houses in the shanty town are made of tin there is no protection from bullets, and when the fighting intensifies his team struggles to cope. Saint-Fleur, who has only 18 members of staff, including three surgeons, says he wishes Minustah would pull out of Cité Soleil. "We used to have good relations with the UN, but not any more. They have even shot at the hospital," he says.
Not far away is St-François de Salles school. In a classroom on the first floor, Father Tom points to seven bullet holes in the walls and ceiling. "Why would they shoot at a school full of children?" he says wearily, explaining that during the previous week UN soldiers had fired at the building during lessons. One pupil, 11-year-old Raoul Moroney, was there that day. "The white people began shooting. Everyone was crying. We had to throw ourselves to the ground and crawl down the stairs," he says.
The shooting lasted about an hour, Father Tom says, and came from a UN post about 100m away, manned by Brazilian troops. The priest says he cannot understand why soldiers would target a school. Minustah says that it does not target civilians.
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