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Undeclared War Escalates In Capital Slum
By Amy Bracken
CITE SOLEIL, Jan 18 (IPS) - It was 1:30 in the morning and the sound was deafening -- machine gun fire, the crack of rifles, and the boom of heavy artillery, as bullet tracers flew through the black sky like fireworks.
Some 200,000 residents of Cite Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, heard the explosions and knew that even in their beds they were not safe. Across the city, fist-sized holes in building walls showed that bullets can penetrate thick cement.
One patient at the city's Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Belgium hospital had been hit in the head by a bullet that had entered her bedroom through the roof. On another day, MSF doctors treated 10 patients for bullet wounds. All had been struck in th
The battle raging between U.N. troops and armed civilians in Cite Soleil, one of the poorest cities in the hemisphere, is wounding and killing innocent residents on a daily basis. And as Haiti prepares for elections now scheduled for Feb. 7, the violence is getting worse.
The Cite Soleil MSF hospital alone received 47 gunshot victims, four of whom died, in the first 16 days of 2006. They had received 80 in the month of December, up from 34 in November. And this doesn't include the gunshot victims received by the Haitian Red Cross emergency centre in Cite Soleil, which treats and transports several violence victims a day to a hospital in Port-au-Prince. Nor does it include the dead.
Port-au-Prince's MSF France hospital, near downtown, also reported an increase in gunshot victims from both Cite Soleil and the rest of the metropolitan area in recent months. They saw 122 gunshot victims in December, up from 103 in November, with the trend expected to continue, according to MSF Fr
ance Mission Chief Ali Besnaci.
Port-au-Prince is a rare assignment for relief workers who usually work in areas of more traditional territorial conflict and conflict that is not confined to a single city. And the situation here is unusually complex. The violence in Cite Soleil resembles a war, but who is fighting, and why, is unclear. And all parties claim to be on the side of peace.
As gunfire rings out in Cite Soleil, Haitian radio broadcasts a war of words. Armed residents of Cite Soleil say business leaders are backing a campaign of violence carried out by the U.N. Business leaders say the U.N. is willfully neglecting to control gangsters and kidnappers. And police and U.N. leaders accuse candidates in Haiti's upcoming presidential elections of backing gang violence.
Self-described "militants", otherwise known as gang members, say it is the U.N. soldiers who are terrorising the population, and they deny there are arms among civilians, even as boys and young men walk the streets o
penly displaying rifles and pistols.
"The situation is critical for the Haitian people," said a young "militant" known as Tutu.
"The U.N. troops landed in our country to carry out the work of the bourgeois, to create disorder in the country using the money of [business leader Andre] Apaid and [presidential candidate] Charles Baker, so that elections never happen in the country."
Because Rene Preval is the favoured presidential candidate among both the people of Cite Soleil and the rest of the population, some claim it is only other candidates, and not the people of Cite Soleil, who have an interest in destabilising the country before elections.
In wealthier parts of greater Port-au-Prince, shootings are rare but kidnappings have hit a high -- often 20 per day this winter, and most of the victims are held in Cite Soleil. Kidnappees are occasionally beaten and killed, and they are often traumatised and financially drained after days of negotiations for a ransom upwards of 10,000
Business leaders have harshly criticised the U.N. for not doing more to protect the population from kidnappings. The Haitian Chamber of Commerce recently called a general strike, and Apaid and Baker organised a sit-in outside U.N. peacekeeping headquarters at which hundreds of protesters chanted and sang out their anger with the troops for doing too little or too much.
Protesters carried signs saying, "The U.N. mission makes money while Haitians die", and chanted, "Down with MINUSTAH!" -- the acronym for the mission. As a U.N. vehicle passed through the crowd to enter the headquarters, the crowd chanted, "We are not afraid!" while some threw plastic bottles at the truck.
The anti-U.N. event united supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide with their traditional enemies. (Apaid and Baker were leaders of the successful movement to oust Aristide two years ago.) Strangely, it also united people who advocate taking an aggressive approach to Cite Soleil, in spite of the
civilian casualties that would incur, with those who believe the U.N.'s approach in Cite Soleil has already cost too many lives.
Brigadier General Mahmoud Al-Husban, force commander for the U.N. troops in greater Port-au-Prince, said the situation is Cite Soleil is growing worse every day.
Jordan's two battalions have the toughest job in the Haiti mission -- trying to control Cite Soleil alone. When the U.N. launched an appeal for troops to come to Haiti for the Cite Soleil mission, they asked more than 50 countries, and only Jordan volunteered. It was an overwhelming job from the start, but Al-Husban said armed civilians have grown more dangerous in the past month.
"They don't care about how much they are firing or shooting rounds," Al-Husban said. "In the beginning they used to fire three or four shots in maybe one hour, but now they are firing hundreds and sometimes a thousand."
A security operation in Cite Soleil Tuesday morning led to a shoot-out that lasted hours. By T
uesday afternoon, two Jordanian soldiers and at least two civilians were dead, and one Jordanian soldier and at least eight civilians were wounded by gunfire, including a one-year-old girl and 11-month-old boy.
Nine U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in Haiti since their mission began in July 2004. Most of the killings were in and around Cite Soleil, and four of those were Jordanian soldiers, whom a Jordanian commander characterised as "martyrs" for peace in the face of "evil".
Each side in the undeclared war vilifies the other, and one cannot live in Cite Soleil without a constant awareness of the armed conflict. But some argue there are deeper problems in the city that are more deserving of attention.
"It's not a question of gangs in Cite Soleil," said Richard Roger, a voter registration security guard who lives and works in Cite Soleil. "It's a question of misery, it's a question of the problem that people don't have work, people don't have the means to eat, somewhere to sleep,
somewhere for them to do what they want comfortably because Haitians want to have a minimum standard of living, and they will use illegal means to get it."
Al-Husban said he believes his troops can bring security to Cite Soleil. However, he said, "Solving the problems of Cite Soleil is not military. A military solution is part of it [but] there are a lot of political, humanitarian, socialà many things that have to be done together."
An unelected provisional government has been running Haiti for the past two years, and many residents of Cite Soleil say elections are their only hope for an end to their suffering. (END/2006)