Descent into Haiti

By Garcia, J. Malcolm | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Descent into Haiti


Garcia, J. Malcolm, The Virginia Quarterly Review


April 2005

We descend into Cité Soleil.

Mattresses smolder on the trash-strewn roads in this sprawling seaside slum of Port-au-Prince. Gray smoke blows off islands of refuse and the charred remains of burned cars, and the twisted, immolated metal smeared with ash and grime wavers in pools of heat, assuming the abject shapes of a crucifixion. My translator, Jean, our driver, Marc-oreal, and I drive beneath a fierce, tremendous sky seared white and laced with haze and the stomach-turning funk of spoiled meat and fruit.

We stop by a vendor and buy palm-sized plastic bags of water, tear them open with our teeth, tip our heads back, and drink. Squinting against the sky, sweat like hot oil on our skin. Ahead of us, machine-gun-toting policemen in ski masks emerge through the smoke from behind UN armored personnel carriers preceded by feral dogs. Hunched and snapping, the dogs fight among themselves in black piles of steamy garbage.

No sound comes from the mouths of the withered men and women picking through the skeletal remains of vehicles. Just the slow turning of their heads as we drive past. Dogs and pigs wrestle over bloody bandages below some graffiti.

We need Peace.

Return Aristide.

Unity for everyone.

And one final bit of scrawl.

Bang, bang Haiti!

I arrived in Haiti for a freelance newspaper assignment. My friend Peter, a Miami-based photographer, has worked in Haiti for almost twenty years and helped me with the details. He set me up with Jean and made my hotel arrangements. I stopped in Miami on my way out for last-minute advice.

"Whatever you do, don't go out at night."

"Why not?"

"The bogeyman comes out at night."

I listened to crickets hum in his backyard. Felt a warm pressure spreading behind my eyes as my second beer kicked in.

"Who's the bogeyman?"

"Haiti, dude."

On April 15, the day I left Miami, ten alleged Cité Soleil gunmen were killed in a joint UN-Haitian police operation as part of a campaign begun in March to crush armed groups still loyal to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The human rights organizations Médecins Sans Frontières and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti reported that at least thirty-eight others were injured.

Supporters of the former leader have accused the UN and police of trying to wipe out the pro-Aristide movement, prevent democratic reforms, and position the US-supported interim government for permanent rule.

"We're trained to kill and use overwhelming power," Carlos Chagas, the UN spokesman in Port-au-Prince told me. "We understand we must avoid casualties to the civilian population."

But many of the 250,000 residents of Cité Soleil, an impoverished haven for pro-Aristide factions, accuse the 7,400 Brazilian-led peacekeepers of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah) with shooting indiscriminately into the slum's patchwork of cramped housing, killing innocent bystanders.

A report by the University of Miami's Center for the Study of Human Rights, "Haiti Human Rights Investigation: Nov. 11-21, 2004," charged that UN peacekeepers and soldiers "resort to heavy-handed incursions into the poorest neighborhoods that force intermittent peace at the expense of innocent residents."

The UN's close coordination with the Haitian National Police has opened it to further criticism because of allegations against the police of committing summary executions-including the murder of street children-arbitrary arrests, and some rapes.

"The Geneva Convention stipulates that the use of guns against civilians is illegal," Pierre Alexis, coordinator of the Red Cross operation in Cité Soleil, said. "But the UN doesn't hesitate to use them."

I flew to Haiti to see for myself.

"Cité Soleil ain't going to put up with no shit, man," Jean says between gulps of water. "What I tell you at church, man? …

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