Our second day in Haiti brought us to the slum of Bel Air, an area extremely different than other areas of Port au Prince. Not far from the glistening Palais Nationale, Bel Air is a poor neighborhood which has been hit hard since the February 2004 coup. It’s own residents describe a campaign of political .cleansing” happening here. Bel Air has been the site of several massacres. On June 4 2005, CIVPOL (UN .Civilian. Police . now known as UNPOL) forces killed 14 people. On February 25 2005 14 people were killed by police as Brazilian UN soldiers looked on. Our brief visit today gave us a good idea of the impact that this cleansing has on people’s daily lives.
UN Brazilian MINUSTA (Mission Nations Unies de Stabilization en Haiti) forces are omnipresent here, sitting at checkpoints behind roadblocks on the street and patrolling around. Directly adjacent to one of the checkpoints sits one of the taller buildings of the area – a building which has been occupied by MINUSTAH. Military camouflage netting is draped from the windows, and soldiers peer down at the street.
As we walk by and snap photos, one soldier comes running out of a building. He stops us and demands to see our press passes. American independent journalist Kevin Pina explains that this is the first time they have done this. Their efforts to control the press seem to have gone up a notch. As the soldiers write down our names it becomes clear that they don’t want journalists roaming freely here. They invite us on a press tour in Fort National, another area of Port au Prince. Journalists who go on these tours are escorted around by armed guards, speak to the people the UN want them to speak to and see what they want them to see. We decline.
Perhaps the MINUSTA have good reason to be nervous for the world to see what they have been doing in places like Bel Air. Later in our visit, we have a chance to meet with Robert Montinard, the coordinator of a group called Zakat Enfant. He explains to us that his group has been a bridge between the UN and the community. Unfortunately it is a bridge that is quickly burning.
After a meeting between community leaders and UN officials to discuss human rights abuses in the community, Zakat Enfant signed a contract with the UN to help them implement their program – DDR: Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reinsertion. The deal was that youth in the neighborhood would give up their arms, and in return they would not be arrested or harassed (unless they do something else wrong) and the UN would provide badly needed social programs. Bel Air is a neighborhood where many children can go up to 3 days without food and do not have a chance to go to school or have access to health care. It sounds nice, except there’s one problem . the UN isn’t holding up their part of the deal.
Since the beginning of the program, dozens of people have given up their guns, but all they’ve gotten in return is a passcard with their picture on it, part of the UN’s program of social control. Eloi, for example, is a local kid we met who traded in his gun under DDR. In return, all he got was his plastic UN photo id which will theoretically allow him to get through the UN checkpoints unbothered.
2 people who returned their arms have already been arrested and the promised social programs have yet to appear. As Robert says, “Christmas passed without even one candy for the kids”.
Now Robert is between a rock and a hard place. On the one side UN officials are pushing him to continue with the program, on the other side, the increasingly frustrated community sees Robert and Zakat Enfant as traitors and are taking out their anger on them. Robert tells us he cannot walk around freely in his own community anymore. And what of his group, Zakat Enfant? The organization was supposed to help kids traumatized by war, and give them workshops in non-violence, but they have been sold-out by the UN and rendered useless.
Others are very clear about who’s to blame for Haiti’s current troubles. Samba Boukman, the local spokesperson for Lavalas, is frank with us. He blames the US, France, and Canada for the crisis in Haiti. He wonders why Canada is working against the Haitian people, but he has his theory – Canadian companies are doing business with the elite “civil society” group 184. It would seem that democracy in Haiti is not in their best interests. Canada is lending its complete support to MINUSTA, and MINUSTA has turned Bel Air into a veritable occupied zone. As Robert had explained before, “If we’re in prison, if we’re poor, if we’re dying, it’s France, USA and Canada. It’s not the military’s fault. They know nothing. They’re just there following orders. It’s the diplomats, the ambassadors, the politicians who are doing this”.
We have arrived in Haiti in a chaotic and uncertain time. We were expecting to be here days before the presidential elections, scheduled for January 8th, but now postponed indefinitely for the fourth time. The elections are laughable, especially in the way they are being framed by the authorities. Today, the UN security council called an urgent session to debate the continuing postponements of Haiti’s elections. The Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP), funded by USAID and CIDA, have put the blame on the UN and OAS, who have been quick to shift it back to them. All sides deny their complicity in this royal failure.
As the big shots play hot potato, the reaction on the streets is quite different. No one is surprised, although tensions are high. Haitians know quite well that they are being asked to participate in “selections” rather than elections. Samba Boukman says he is registered to vote anyway. He explains the Lavalas position is that true elections can not proceed unless the thousands of political prisoners being held in Haiti are released, the repression of people in poor neighborhoods comes to an end, disarmament is complete and political exiles are allowed to return to the country. All of these issues are completely lacking from the Canadian discourse. In fact, Paul Martin has denied there are any political prisoners in Haiti, and Canada just wants to push forth with any elections, come hell or high water. Although Boukman is not optimistic that his demands will be met, he sees elections as the only way the people can move forward peacefully.
As we leave Bel Air, we see graffiti on the side of a building that translates roughly as “expensive life + social exclusion = civil war”. As Robert Montinard explains, the violence that has plagued Bel Air is violence that is borne of misery and poverty. It’s a cycle that won’t be broken by treachery and unkept promises from the UN, the US, France and Canada.
(Leslie Bagg and Aaron Lakoff are two activists and independent journalists from Montreal. They will be filing written and audio reports from Haiti throughout the month of January, specifically focusing on the role of Canada in the country’s current crisis. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)