Wednesday, March 14, 2007

War in the Haitian Slum

War In The Haitian Slum
January 6th, 2007
by Dr. John A. Carroll

Our driver dropped us off yesterday at the entrance to Cite Soleil. Jean-Michel (not his real name) and I headed on foot into this massive slum in Port-au-Prince. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the sun felt great.

Jean-Michel is a 25 year old Haitian man who lives in the Pele district near Cite Soleil. He goes into Soleil almost everyday for reasons I won’t explain, and he knows the slum and its people very well.

Jean-Michel carries a sleek Motorola cell phone and had made numerous calls before we entered Soleil. He has played a big role during the last year in freeing many people that have been kidnapped and held in different areas in and around Port-au-Prince. Jean-Michel does not carry a weapon.

As we walked down the main street, Soleil #1, we curved around the large water tower. Soleil looked much like it had twenty years ago. Many people were on the street and were friendly and smiled when spoken to.

The walls were covered with crude graffiti which said things like “Aristide” and “Down with MINUSTAH” (the French acronym for the UN Peacekeeping Force).
We walked about a quarter mile and passed a cement basketball court that divides the entrance and exit roads leading in and out of Soleil. Teenagers were playing three-on-three, and five boys about seven or eight years old were playing marbles on the smooth concrete. Not one of these boys playing marbles had on a stitch of clothing. No one except “blans” even notice things like that in Soleil.

We reached an intersection, and sitting to the right were four white UN tanks parked about 50 yards from us. No soldiers or “blue hats” were visible. Market women were selling their wares across the street directly in front of the tanks. People walked comfortably in the intersection and tap-taps sped by with fairly full loads of people. I thought that things seemed quite normal for Soleil.

As we walked, Jean-Michel’s phone rang. It was a man who claimed to have kidnapped a victim in the middle of the night yesterday. Jean-Michel recognized his voice for reasons that I hesitate to explain. The kidnapper asked $200,000 US ransom for the safe release of the person. This victim is Haitian and his family will be very unlikely to come up with anything close to this. The conversation ended abruptly and Jean-Michel said he would talk to them again in a couple of hours. Continuing dialogue in Haiti is very important…especially with kidnappers.

Before Christmas there was an “epidemic” of childhood kidnappings in and around Port-au-Prince. Some of the children were released unharmed and others were killed. These kidnappings shocked the entire country. People have told me that there was a paucity of Haitian National Police and UNo n the streets during these kidnappings. That was not my experience while the pediatric kidnappings were occurring. However, many Haitians believe that the kidnapping children is a way to destabilize the Preval government and also to allow MINUSTAH to blast away in the slums as they search for the gang leaders that control the kidnapping industry.

Last month, in the pre dawn hours of December 22, hundreds of MINUSTAH soldiers and Haitian National Police led a raid on Soleil to try and kill gang leaders. The gang leaders escaped untouched but many innocent civilians were killed according to reports that I had read and heard.

About one-half mile into Soleil, headed for the wharf, we were joined by two other young men who knew Jean-Michel. We turned to the left shortly after they began walking with us and headed a few feet down another road and then quickly turned left again and climbed some creaky steps up into a Soleil home.

This was why I came to Soleil. I wanted to talk with the family that lived here. Jean-Michel had told me that they had family members that were injured in the raid by the UN. I wanted to hear it from them and see if I believed them.

We passed through a 6 foot opening at the top of the steps which had a sheet tied with a knot at the bottom. The sheet was the door.

The flat had two rooms that were very neat and much nicer than I had expected. The first small room had a kitchen with a small table and some pots and utensils, and the second room looking out over the street was a small bedroom with three single beds. The walls were made of the usual cinderblock and the roof was corrugated sheet metal, called “toll” in Creole. There is no electricity or running water in the house ever.

The lady of the house, who I will call Immacula, met us. She said she is 48 years old but appeared closer to 65. She told me her husband was killed in Soleil when he was caught in gunfire as he walked to work in 1991. She then introduced me to her 13, 15, and 17 year old daughters. Immacula’s seven month old granddaughter was there also. The baby’s 19 year old mother was injured in the UN attack and is in the hospital. Two men were in the house and were very happy to answer my questions and give advice.

Immacula told me that on December 22, before it became light, a UN helicopter circled Soleil and fired bullets down on the homes of thousands of people including her family. Her four daughters were asleep in the bedroom where we were talking. Three of the girls were too late diving under the beds and were struck by bullets or shrapnel.

The UN has 20 mm rapid fire canons and .50 caliber machine guns. Immacula said the bullets from the helicopter came blasting in through their ceiling. Looking up, I could see a 12 inch hole above my head letting in the sunlight, and multiple other smaller holes peppered the roof above me to the left.

Her 19 year old daughter (and mother of the baby) took a bullet to the shoulder suffering a severe wound which placed her in St. Catherine Laboure Hospital, the only functioning hospital in Soleil. Immacula explained that her daughter is suffering a lot and they recently transferred her to another hospital. St. Catherine’s is very small and ill equipped to say the least.

The 15 year old daughter was hit by shrapnel on the left side of her head. She stood in the corner of the bed room and looked down as I examined the left side of her shaved head where the shrapnel had been removed. The area was still swollen and tender, but did not appear infected.

The 17 year old daughter caught shrapnel in her mid right leg. The metal fragment was removed and the wound is almost healed.

Immacula said that the UN helicopter circled and fired down for three solid hours. The entire family hid under the beds and prayed. When the sun came up, Immacula and her family stated that UN tanks sat on corners and continued the shooting for hours more. She said, “We were attacked from the air and ground.” And when I asked Immacula why the UN would do something like this, she said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”

Immacula drug her kids with the bullet and shrapnel wounds to St. Catherine’s, which is one mile down the street from their home. She said that she saw many people injured in the streets and many dead people with parts of their heads missing and others with bullet wounds to the mouth. Immacula put her hand to her mouth as she explained what she saw that day.

The men in the bed room said that the UN should leave Haiti now and that Soleil is really suffering because of their presence. They sited feeding programs (canteens) that had been closed and said that the vocational schools had been closed also because of the fear in Soleil. They also said there is no clean water to drink and not enough food, but this is nothing new for Soleil. Another person said that wherever MINUSTAH goes in Haiti, things get worse.

Interestingly, a man in the room stated that, “Everyone that carries guns in Soleil, including the gangs and MINUSTAH, are guilty” (for the chaos and blood shed). The men in the room said shooting occurs all day long. I didn’t hear shooting yesterday, but I can say that while I was working in clinic in Soleil on Wednesday, I heard shooting from somewhere in the slum all afternoon.

When I asked them if President Aristide should return to Haiti, I didn’t know what to expect. They all definitively replied that he should return, and that there would be no peace until he does.

Immacula held her granddaughter some of the time while we were talking. The baby looked like the typical Haitian slum baby. She was expressionless, malnourished, and filthy. Immacula said she had been crying all day before I got there because she had no food for her. The baby’s mothers breast milk is now gone also…it is in the hospital with her injured mother.

As Jean-Michel and I were leaving, Immacula showed me a metal pot that had been sitting high on a cabinet on the east side of the house during the raid. She got it down and showed me the 1 inch jagged hole blown through it by a bullet that had come in from window on that side of the house. I stepped out onto a ramp on that side and saw the bullet hole in the top part of the metal window.

Her home had been hit that day from multiple different angles and three of her girls were shot. Immacula and her girls sure did not look like gang members or kidnappers to me. They looked like very afraid suffering human beings caught in the middle of hell.

I thanked Immacula and her daughters and we left. We headed back down Soleil #1 to St. Catherine’s and caught a tap-tap that was coming by. It took us to the main entrance of the hospital which is located about 75 yards from the road. We didn’t pay the tap-tap driver… I guess he knows Jean-Michel too.

In front of the hospital is a huge pile of black garbage with women (machandes) selling things nearby. A very dirty small child covered with flys was asleep in a wheelbarrow at the edge of the garbage.

We entered the hospital courtyard through a door in the wall that surrounds the hospital. A sign at the door showed a black machine gun with a big red “X” through it, just in case visitors need to be reminded.

St. Catherine’s is run by the state of Haiti and staffed by Medicins Sans Frontieres and an occasional Haitian doctor. In the mid 90’s I had the opportunity of working in the two room emergency department located there. I can safely say that this medical facility has not improved in the last 10 years.

As mentioned earlier, the hospital is very small and so are the wards. The wards have about six to eight beds. I walked a few steps to the surgical ward where five of the six beds were filled by patients who all said they were shot by MINUSTAH. All the beds were single beds. The sixth bed had a very elderly man and woman in it, both were asleep, and the woman appeared to be the patient.

The first patient I talked to was a 35 year old man that was walking during the day past a UN tank and was shot in the abdomen. I don’t know the date that this happened. He underwent a laparotomy (abdominal exploration) and his condition is still guarded. I asked him if he was carrying a weapon and he said, “No, my hands were empty.”

The second patient I talked to in the ward was a 14 year old boy who had a tracheostomy and so he could only lightly whisper his answers. He is from Soleil and said that one month ago (I am not sure he knew the date correctly) he was shot while he was asleep by a circling UN helicopter. A bullet ripped through his roof and struck him in the throat. His tracheostomy was done at St. Catherine’s and saved his life.

The third and last patient I spoke with was a beautiful 24 year old lady who appeared very ill. Her eye sclera were very pale indicating severe anemia. She could barely speak.

She is from a very dangerous area of Soleil called Bois Neuf, Projet Drouillard. She stated that she was taking a “little walk” in Soleil one morning at 7 AM and was shot in the abdomen by soldiers in a UN tank. Again, I was not able to ascertain the exact date when this happened. She had a colostomy bag and appeared very unstable. Also, she had no visitors or family members present taking care of her. Hospitals in Haiti rely on family members to bathe, change bedpans, by medication, and bring food for the patients.

So that was Cite Soleil yesterday, January 5, 2006. Soleil has always been a sad, grim experience for me. I am obviously only giving one side of the story. I did not interview MINUSTAH. They would have a different side and have denied to others shooting into peoples shanties from their helicopters. All I can say is I saw the holes in the roof and the “exit wounds” appeared headed down. And more importantly, I saw people with holes in them.

The people of Soleil are used to being poor, hungry, illiterate, and broken. But now they sleep with one eye open, ready to dive under their beds at night, praying that bullets from the sky don’t find them.

October 19, 2017

See this article in The Conversation regarding MINUSTAH and Soleil as we look back 10 years:

On Oct. 15, 2017, the United Nations will withdraw its peacekeeping troops from Haiti, ending its 13-year mission there.
One might expect mixed feelings about the soldiers’ departure. After all, since the arrival of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in June 2004, after former President Jean-Bertrande Aristide was forced out by a coup, the island has seen neither war nor armed conflict.
Crime and violence levels also remain high in Haiti, particularly in the capital of Port-au-Prince, and until January 2017 the country was leaderless due to repeated delays in holding its presidential election. Haiti is also still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which caused famine in some hard-hit areas in 2016.
Despite these challenges, reports from the island suggest that most Haitians are ready to see the mission depart. That’s because, beyond stabilizing the country during a period of political tumult, the U.N.‘s troops have also done harm in Haiti.
The international organization has admitted that its peacekeepers introduced cholera to the island after the devastating 2010 earthquake and sexually abused women who lived near U.N. camps.
What it has not yet acknowledged is that during early efforts to take out gangs in crime-riddled neighborhoods, U.N. troops also unintentionally killed more than 25 of the same citizens they were deployed to protect.

MINUSTAH soldiers, here seen in November 2016, have occupied Bois Neuf, Cité Soleil, for over a decade. Siobhán Wills

Keeping the peace?

This lethal violence, which has garnered little international press, is the subject of our new film, “It Stays With You: Use of Force by U.N. Peacekeepers in Haiti,” a 50-minute documentary released in Port-au-Prince in June 2017 and set for its U.S. release on Oct. 30.
Between 2004 and 2007, MINUSTAH carried out at least 15 heavily militarized operations against criminal gangs living in Cité Soleil, a seaside shantytown of 300,000 to 400,000 people. In these crowded neighborhoods, where most homes are made of scavenged sheets of corrugated metal and other scrap materials, the U.N. troops battled local organized crime groups using heavy weaponry, including automatic rifles and grenades.
During Operation Iron First, for example, which took place in the Bois Neuf section of Cité Soleil on July 6, 2005, the U.N. reports that it used 22,700 bullets, 78 grenades and five mortars and killed seven gang members.
But, according to some residents interviewed in “It Stays with You,” unarmed civilians also died in this raid. Douglas Griffiths, then deputy U.S. ambassador to Haiti, has also confirmedthat “credible sources” have accused U.N. peacekeepers of killing “more than 20 women and children” in the operation.
Some were shot inside their homes by U.N. soldiers in helicopters, whose bullets easily penetrated their metal rooftops. These accounts have been substantiated by witnesses and international aid workers interviewed for our film, including by one American doctor who saw bullet holes in the roof of a home that he visited while treating a young girl for gunshot wounds.

Some homes in Cité Soleil were completely destroyed by MINUSTAH gunfire and shelling. Siobhan Wills

Other Cité Soleil residents were killed by machine gun fire by U.N. troops from armored personnel carriers, shooting from guns mounted on the vehicles’ roofs. Witnesses state that during Operation Iron Fist, sustained firing over several hours destroyed entire homes, killing some of the people inside them.
In 2005, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who was then the U.N.‘s undersecretary general for peacekeeping, essentially confirmed these reports. At a press briefing at the U.N. headquarters in New York, he said, “A number of operations have been conducted by MINUSTAH… I have to be honest with you, there may have been some civilian casualties.”
The following December, just before Christmas in 2006, the U.N.’s Operation New Forest went through some 10,000 bullets over two days. Numerous people with no connection to gangs, including children, were killed or injured in this raid.
The exact number is unclear, however, since the U.N. has carried out no investigations involving a visit to the neighborhood into this raid or others in Cité Soleil. The Haitian police have conducted no investigations, either.

No accountability

These accusations are not the first to damage the reputation of the U.N.’s vast peacekeeping operation, which currently has soldiers stationed in 15 countries around the world. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are an endemic problem in multiple missions.
Even so, MINUSTAH has a bad record. In Haiti, 134 Sri Lankan soldiers set up a child sex ring, exploiting boys and girls as young as 12 years of age. There is little accountability for such violations. The Sri Lankan troops were sent home, but none have been jailed; the U.N. was criticized for its inadequate response. It also took five years for the U.N. leadership to take responsibility for the cholera epidemic.
It is not surprising, then, that the international organization’s response to the killings in Cité Soleil has been lackluster. The end of the Haiti mission this month offers an opportunity for an independent investigation into the unintended harms of U.N. operations in Cité Soleil, particularly in Bois Neuf.
Based on our on-the-ground research, we believe a full accounting would find that the repeated military raids not only killed innocent bystanders but also exacerbated the precariousness of residents’ already marginal existence. Poor families lost their breadwinners; homes were destroyed; children were made orphans and had to be taken in by neighbors.

Evelyn Myrtil (here with granddaughter) and her family were caught in the crossfire between gangs and MINUSTAH troops. Myrtil’s brother did not survive.Siobhan Wills

After a pot-maker, Nelson Ti Lari, was inadvertently killed in his workshop in 2005, his wife, Veronique, told us that she repeatedly visited the U.N. base at Camp Delta with a photograph of her dead husband, seeking acknowledgment that the breadwinner of her family had been killed. But, she says, the staff there sent her away every time. Eventually, she gave up.
Failing U.N. support – such as medical assistance to those injured in raids or financial support to people who lost their homes or livelihoods in the crossfire – people were compelled to seek help from the cohort of international NGOs that have provided the bulk of citizen services in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.
There is a growing body of international literature, including research by Dr. Ilionor Louis, co-author of this article, demonstrating that such forced dependency is itself a form of indirect violence. And in a country like Haiti, where post-disaster aid is big business and oversight of NGOs is almost nil, this will be another lasting legacy of the U.N. mission.
In making our documentary, we found that Cité Soleil residents aren’t just sad for their losses – they’re also angry that the U.N. hasn’t taken responsibility for its actions. MINUSTAH may be pulling out of Haiti on Oct. 15, but the the agency’s misdeeds will live on in Cité Soleil long after the last peacekeeper departs.
The film “It Stays With You: Use of Force by UN Peacekeepers in Haiti” is available for streaming(password Haiti17).

John A. Carroll, MD

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