Posted on February 8, 2006

Hope Peeps Through Cracks in Island’s Bloody Slums

Tim Reid, Times (London), Feb. 4, 2006

It took Silvanne Pierrepaul four months to retrieve the body of her murdered son from the mortuary.

Denis, 21, and eight of his friends were shot and hacked to death with machetes at a football match by a gang paid to snuff out those still loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian President ousted by a bloody rebellion two years ago.

What terrifies Mrs Pierrepaul is that minutes before the massacre, caught on film and now under investigation by the UN, the National Police blocked off all escape routes and then watched the killing spree unfold. It was, she believes, state-sponsored murder.

“This is the worst Haiti has been,” Mrs Pierrepaul, clutching a picture of her dead son’s contorted face, told The Times. “Even under Papa Doc (Duvalier) it was nothing like this.”

She is not alone in her bleak assessment. Four days before the first elections since Mr Aristide’s overthrow — and despite two years of rule by a US-backed interim government fortified by 9,000 UN peacekeepers — the people of Haiti suffer amid a maelstrom of murder, kidnapping and corruption on an unprecedented scale.

After all the talk of fresh starts, and expenditure of more than $400 million (£226 million) by Washington alone, Haiti — which has suffered 35 coups in 200 years — has become more violent and ungovernable than ever. The forthcoming elections for a president and 129 members of Congress have been postponed four times because of the violence and logistical problems.

Armed gangs, most demanding Mr Aristide’s return from exile in South Africa, control whole neighbourhoods in the sprawling and densely packed slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Gunfire echoes through the night. Summary killings by a police force infiltrated by hundreds from Haiti’s brutal disbanded army, are carried out in daylight. Nearly 2,000 people, including 78 police and nine UN troops, have been killed since Mr Aristide left in 2004.

In the past ten months 1,900 people have been kidnapped for ransom, an epidemic that in recent weeks has reached 20 a day. Port-au-Prince is now the ransom capital of the Western hemisphere. Everybody is a target: market women, businessmen, foreign aid workers, nuns, journalists — just before Christmas 14 children were seized from a school bus. The slum gangs have collected tens of millions of dollars in ransoms to fund an insurgency against the interim government, the police and a UN force they detest — and to buy thousands of high-velocity weapons that arrive by the boatload from the US.

Oxfam estimates that the capital, home to a third of Haiti’s 8.5 million people, is awash with 210,000 weapons. Exploding bullets are the ammunition du jour. Jails overflow with thousands of pro-Aristide sympathisers, most held for many months without charge. Judges take bribes. Rape is commonplace. Unemployment is 80 per cent, 55 per cent live on less than $1 a day and life expectancy is 52. Aids is rife.

There is no electricity or running water in the poorest districts. Night brings murder and fear. UN forces, known locally by their acronym Minustuh (United Nations Stabilisation Mission), are overwhelmed by the violence and unable to speak the language. They travel inside armoured personnel carriers and launch heavy-handed raids into the packed slums where innocent civilians, including women and children, are killed in the crossfire.

Last month their Brazilian commander, General Urano Teixeira Da Matta Bacellar, killed himself with a gunshot to the head. In Cité Soleil — where 300,000 live in a sprawling slum filled with concrete hovels and running sewage — the clashes have taken a terrible toll. The shantytown, the biggest in the Caribbean, is where most kidnap victims are held. The police and the Jordanian UN troops assigned to patrol it fear to go near.

Deep inside Cité Soleil sits Sainte Catherine Hospital, the slum’s lone trauma centre. It was reopened in August by the international humanitarian organisation Medécins Sans Frontières, whose surgical teams have seen hundreds of shooting victims in recent weeks. Half are women and children.

Dr Carlo Bellini, one of the surgeons, points out bullet holes in the hospital’s exterior. “It is a war zone,” he says. “These are war patients. I have no other word to describe it.”

Lying in a dingy ward inside the hospital, Sonel François, 48, stares blankly at the ceiling. Three weeks ago he was pushing a wheelbarrow through Cité Soleil when two bullets tore through his stomach and buttock. “It was the Minustuh soldiers,” he says with disgust. “Minustuh are killers. They are killing all the poor people.”

Nobody knows whether it was the Jordanian UN troops who shot Mr François, but it no longer matters. The poor in Port-au-Prince blame the UN for everything. So do most others. The business elite have seen their factories looted and workers kidnapped. “This is the worst Haiti has been by a long way,” said Max Ewald, the head of Haiti’s business association. “When Duvalier took power , that was state violence. Now it’s everywhere.”

The reasons are manifold. The warring gangs receive varying degrees of political support. Many are manipulated by supporters of Aristide and his splintered Lavalas party. Others are paid by anti-Aristide factions, elements of the business elite, and drug traffickers. Troops from the army Mr Aristide disbanded wreak revenge on his former footsoldiers.

The interim government has been too feckless to impose order. The international community has paid only 10 per cent of the $1.2 billion pledged in 2004.

Mario Andresol, the police chief, admitted on radio that a quarter of his force was corrupted by gangs and drug traffickers. The UN points to some successes — a Brazilian contingent has largely pacified the once-murderous BelAir district — but admits that it has struggled and has no clear plan to bring order to Cité Soleil. A Brazilian colonel told The Times that it would take just two UN boats to stop the delivery of weapons.

The Times accompanied a UN patrol into Cité Militaire, another slum. People stared sullenly; not even children smiled or waved. A few hundred yards into its filthy main street, Major Rogerio Teixera halted the convoy. “Up there, we have no control,” he said. “We cannot go there. It is too dangerous.” He recalled how his concrete checkpoint was fired on last week by six men with AK47s from only 50 yards away. “We returned fire,” said Sergeant Celso Portes. “But we don’t know if we hit anyone.” Despite everything, a semblance of democracy survives. On Tuesday 34 presidential candidates including a guerrilla chief, three accused drug traffickers and an accused assassin, will seek to become president.

Far from Cité Soleil, amid the hills above Port-au-Prince next to a garden filled with bougainvillea, sits René Préval, the runaway favourite to win. The only democratically elected president to serve a full five-year term — between 1996 and 2001 — Mr Préval says Haiti is still full of potential. He is right. Despite the violence, large parts of the city are clogged with traffic and teeming with life. Election posters are everywhere. Mr Preval, an Aristide protégé who has distanced himself from his former patron, says he will disarm Cité Soleil through job creation, education and healthcare. “Armed people are everywhere. A military solution is not valid. It would be a terrible massacre,” he said.

Port-au-Prince, he says, has become split in two: the ghettos of the slums, and the ghettos of the bourgeoisie afraid to leave their homes. “We need reconciliation. We need to disarm the gangs. Mine will be a government of transition.”

One wishes him luck; 200 years of history weigh heavily against him.