Friday, March 16, 2007

Saint Anthony and the Dragons

Saint Anthony and the Dragons
By Dr. John A. Carroll
January 26th, 2007

Today I went back into Cite Soleil to work. I work with an order of Catholic Sisters who have a large pediatric clinic, a school with 600 kids, a malnutrition program, and a sewing class for hundreds of women from the slum. Only six sisters are present and live across the street from the clinic. Two Haitian pediatricians work in the clinic.

The front of the Sisters’ home is pock marked with bullet holes. Yesterday, Soleil, with 300,000 people was “closed” due to shooting between the UN (MINUSTAH) troops and the gangs.

The Haitian gangs are locally referred to as chimere which means dragon. These gangs have spearheaded the massive number of kidnappings during the past year in Haiti and many believe are part of the narcotic industry as well. They are extremely violent and carry automatic weapons that keep the Haitian police out of the slum. Jean-Claude, the driver that picked me up early today, grew up in Soleil, but has moved out due to the constant violence that puts the worst slum in the western hemisphere in a persistent state of conflict. However, he knows many of the gang players and works for the Sisters. He may have saved my life today.

Clinic was closed yesterday due to the shooting and was much lighter today because mothers are still afraid to venture out with their babies due to the recent violence. My guess is that 200 babies and kids showed up today for illnesses or vaccinations.

After clinic was over, I wondered across a field that leads directly to St. Catherine’s Hospital, the only hospital in Cite Soleil. It is staffed by Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and a few Haitian physicians.
The hospital is very small, but there were hundreds of people, walking in and out of the waiting area, carrying people into the tiny emergency department, and visiting patients in the small inpatient wards.

I took pictures and talked to multiple people that had been shot in the last couple of months in the slum. A 24 year old girl, who I have talked to in the past, was shot in her abdomen in November. The bullet pierced her uterus, killing her baby inside. She underwent abdominal surgery, had a hysterectomy and has a colostomy. She was very febrile today lying under a sheet and shaking. MINUSTAH shot her when she was out for a walk in November. (She is pictured above.)

In the same room was a 34 year old man that was shot in his home yesterday evening when he was preparing to take a bath from a bucket of water. His wife stated that MINUSTAH tanks fired into his home. He was hit in the right chest, left shoulder, and left leg. He had a right sided chest tube with dark blood draining into a bag on the floor. His wife said that it had been emptied a couple of times. He had no chest x ray done. Other than the chest tube, he only had an IV in his right arm.
I took a fair number of pictures on the wards and in the tiny ER.

Jean-Claude and I then walked out of the hospital and onto the street running in front of the hospital called Soleil 1. He went to the left to purchase a telephone card and I told him I was going to take a photo of tires burning in the middle of the street about 75 yards in the other direction. We agreed to meet at the same spot in a couple of minutes.

There were no cars and no tap-taps now because MINUSTAH was patrolling in their tanks and kids were hurrying home from school in their uniforms. Women were still selling their goods on the curbside but the activity had definitely slowed down from earlier this morning when we arrived.

The gang leaders have absolute control over their zone in the slum. Everyone in their area answers to them. Five people were shot the other day and their bodies burned by a gang. The people killed supposedly were giving out information about the location of the gang. The people in the slum are very scared.

As I headed up the street I could see that three large rubber tires were on fire. This is the Haitian way of stopping vehicles including UN tanks from entering a certain area. I took a picture from where I was but thought I could get a better picture if I walked a little closer. The flames and black smoke were filling the air.

As I got closer to the tires, a group of teenagers on the far corner, across the street and behind the tires, started yelling at me and rushed me. I stood still and they came up shouting not to take pictures and the oldest and biggest grabbed at my camera screaming at me. I didn’t let go and his hand slipped off my hand and the camera. I told him no. He started screaming at me again and grabbed at the camera again. This time I let it go.

Kids and teenagers in the slum are armed by the chimere they work for and I thought “my Canon or my life”. But it made me mad to give it up. They all ran across the street behind the burning tires and I saw the punk that took my camera open the screen and try and look at saved pictures as he hustled away. He returned to the fire and I thought for sure he tossed in the camera.

Everyone started running back down the street towards the hospital area. Black smoke was filling the air. People motioned for me to follow them. As I walked back to the corner where I had left Jean-Claude, I looked to my right and running down an alley directly towards me was group of young men carrying machine guns. The man in front had no shirt on.

Very bad thoughts went through my head as to what was going to happen then. So I just stopped again and waited. There was no where for me to go. What were they going to do?

They sprinted across the street just a few feet in front of me and headed down the street running by the hospital. They knew the UN tanks were coming soon and they were going to their base area a few blocks away. I was very happy the UN tanks had their attention.

It became fairly chaotic then with people moving quickly and looking over their shoulders for chimere and the UN. I waited just outside the entrance to the hospital. Looking across the field at the Sister’s clinic I could see two MINUSTAH tanks in tandem slowly moving down the street with their automatic weapons pointed in both directions. I did not know who to fear more, MINUSTAH or the chimere.

An old lady came out of the hospital entrance and started to head out from behind a wall where I was hiding. I pulled her back because she obviously was not aware of the problems lurking a hundred yards away. She smiled and seemed so vulnerable to this insanity as I led her back to the hospital entrance.

Jean-Claude showed up and I told him what happened. He seemed stunned and he knew he shouldn’t have left me, but I actually left him, and made the mistake. I told him I wanted to head back across the field to the Sisters thinking that may be the only safest haven right then. So we quickly walked across this open field and back into the clinic compound.

The chimere were located only one and one-half blocks from our clinic. Jean-Claude and another guy said “let’s go talk with them about your camera”. I agreed. I wanted that camera back and MINUSTAH was gone for the time being. I couldn’t believe I was going to go talk to heavily armed chimere about a camera. Was I compounding one mistake with another?

We walked one half block and turned to the left. About one block up the side street was a group of about twenty people. My stethoscope was still draped across my neck and I had a surgical scrub top on because of Haiti’s sun. In my right hand was my beat up duffle bag with my medical instruments. It has made many trips to Haiti and looks like it should remain in the slum. I had about 300 dollars in my shirt pocket that I use to buy x rays for patients in the clinic.

We stopped at the group and the lead chimere, called "commander", was a guy about 25 years old, very cocky appearing, and carrying what appeared to be a hunting rifle with a scope. (I don’t know guns.) He was the “commander” speaking for the gang leader who was hidden deep in the maze of the slum.

I explained in Creole that I wanted my camera back, and who I was, and that I had been coming to Soleil for 20 years. He laughed and said he could care less if I “was the President”. He kept his rifle pointed at the ground. About 20-30 people gathered around us very quickly. I told him I was taking pictures of patients in the clinic and the hospital and when I took a picture of burning tires in the street, a group of thugs ripped off my camera. He told me that I shouldn’t have taken any pictures because I am a doctor, not a journalist. He said my camera was destroyed.

When MINUSTAH is not shooting into the slum from their tanks they are taking pictures of everybody on the street that looks like gang members. MINUSTAH tries to kill or capture them and then turn them over to the Haitian National Police. The chimere were afraid I had their pictures and would turn their pictures over to MINUSTAH. I also knew that a free lance photographer was shot and killed by gang members yesterday for taking photos of them.

I had told myself in the past that if I ever got taken by chimere, I would tell them they were in control and that I could do nothing. But I would not and could not show any fear.

As I was speaking to the “commander”, more and more people gathered. I was standing next to Jean-Claude. I felt someone tugging at my right pant leg but I didn’t want to look around away from the chimere leader. I told him he was in control and that I couldn’t do anything. Someone tugged again and I looked around. It was a 30 year old appearing guy who asked me if I had money in my pocket and was taunting me. I thought it was time to leave at that point.

I put my hand on the armed chimere’s shoulder and told him I knew all their lives were terrible in Soleil. He said nothing.

Jean-Claude and I turned around and the guy that had been pulling at my pants said, “Get out of here”. The crowd of people laughed. We walked down the street and did not look back. I held my breath until we turned the corner.

I entered the clinic again and the Sisters gave me some grapefruit juice and I explained to them what happened. They assured me that I would get my camera back. I prayed to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things and lost causes. Soleil is lost.

I had no way home out of the slum at that point anyway so I sat and prayed and talked to the Sisters. The clinic was empty except for three sisters and a couple of people bringing in boxes of medical supplies.

Some representatives of the gang came to the clinic about an hour later. They said they had my camera and would sell it back to me for $1,000 US. I didn’t want it back that bad. They came down to $700 dollars but I said I would give them $100 dollars, and that was it.

I counted out the Haitian money in my pocket that equaled $100 US. But as I was doing this, I thought they may try and take me, and my camera would not be all that important any longer.

I stuck the money in my pocket and three chimere came quickly into the clinic. Two were tall and one was short. They had no masks on. Kidnapping is the slum’s biggest industry now and it is a community effort. And the Haitian police don’t come close. I didn’t really have much bargaining power at that point other than the Sisters and Jean-Claude. And some of the chimere’s kids attend the Sisters’ school and come to clinic for their medical care.

The shortest chimere fumbled inside his pocket and pulled out my camera. We grabbed it from him and I handed them the money.

The big chimere then said to me in no uncertain terms to erase the pictures on the digital camera. I told him to wait. I upload pictures to my computer every night just in case something like this would happen. I turned on the camera, which was not damaged, and started to erase as the chimere watched every move I was making. He was nervous. The word “BUSY” came up on the screen and the chimere asked me what that meant. I told him the pictures were being deleted and he saw the little bar was moving across the screen. This made him happy and he and the other two chimere hurried out of the clinic, afraid that MINUSTAH would come down the street again trying to kill them.

When I saw them go through the door, I stopped the deletion of the pictures. I was able to save most of the pictures I had taken today. None were of the chimere.

I thanked St. Anthony in the clinic when they left without me.

What saved me (and my camera) was my association with the Sisters and the good amount of work that these six Sisters do in the worst slum one can imagine. The gang members are hungry and they know if they venture outside of their zone or Cite Soleil, they will be killed by another gang or by MINUSTAH. They have no future but now. The one hundred dollars will buy them some home made rum, marijuana, and more bullets.

An hour later, on the way home, the streets in Soleil were calm again like nothing had happened. The tires that burned were tiny little black spots on Soleil 1. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and all appeared good.

I asked Jean-Claude if the chimere said anything about kidnapping me. He smiled and said yes that they had referred to me as “big money”, due to the fact that I am from the United States. He also told me they thought that I was “C.I.A.” and that I may have been photographing them. He assured them that I was not and that I worked for the Sisters in their clinic.

So Jean-Claude, the Sisters, and St. Anthony all pulled together and I got another break. The poor people in Soleil usually do not.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back and try it again.

John A. Carroll, MD

1 comment:

josephine said...

amazing story and i applaud your work!