Posted on Mon, Nov. 29, 2004
Anarchy reigns in streets of Haiti
Gangs have brought anarchy to Haiti's poorest areas. Police and peacekeepers mostly stay away, and aid cannot get in.
BY JOE MOZINGO
PORT-AU-PRINCE - In a seaside shantytown, a man opens a frayed envelope to show a picture of his 18-year-old cousin Emil -- his head cut off and resting on his feet.
The man flares his nostrils with anger. In this forsaken swath of mud and rust, where the government has ceded control to armed gangs, he says he and his friends had to risk their lives just to cross into another neighborhood to retrieve the body.
There was no police investigation, no official record of the murder whatsoever. And even in his own neighborhood, Emil's grim story is lost among an endless scourge of atrocities.
In the last two months, wa
rring gangs -- and what many slum residents claim are government death squads -- have trapped tens of thousands of Haiti's poorest citizens in a deadly state of anarchy where rule is determined by which groups of young men have the biggest guns.
Neither the police, nor U.N. peacekeepers headquartered a mile away, enter the area for more than brief incursions. And desperately needed humanitarian aid cannot get in.
The suffocating insecurity is just one sign that the interim government installed following the Feb. 29 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has so far failed to gain any significant grip on authority in this desperately impoverished nation.
In the capital, wealthy people are routinely kidnapped in broad daylight. Shooting regularly empties the streets downtown and brings business to a halt. Gangs of different political bents freely roam, if not control, three of the nation's four largest cities. And there are ever more accounts of people in police uniforms executing poli
tical opponents, kidnapping for ransom and terrorizing neighborhoods loyal to Aristide's Lavalas Family Party.
''We have a government that has no unity, no leadership,'' said Jean Claude Bajeux, a human rights activist who supported the overthrow of Aristide but is pained at recent events. ``Corruption is everywhere.''
Bajeux has railed against despotic regimes for almost half a century. He had great hope when Aristide was first elected in 1990 and watched it disintegrate as he grew to view the former priest as corrupt. His hope welled up again early this year when rebels and political opposition forced Aristide out.
Now, Bajeux's 72-year-old face shows nothing but defeat.
He clasps his hands and pumps them like a beating heart. They slowly come to a stop.
``The country is destroyed. The new reality is mud. People living in the mud. Children living in the mud. With the pigs.''
For this degenerating state of affairs, each political faction furiously blames th
Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and his supporters claim Aristide is sending money and guns to gangs to foment violence in the streets and destabilize the country. People in the slums allege that the elite -- particularly a civil society group called Group 184 -- has paid off and armed a gang of former Aristide loyalists to murder his supporters.
That is who they say killed Emil and dozens more in the sprawling slum where he lived, Cite Soleil. Many more have been arrested by police, they say, and never heard from again.
Evidence is a scant commodity in Haiti, and justice is murky -- at best. Both Lavalas and Group 184 vehemently deny arming gangs. And the national police says all its arrests are legitimate.
Yet a growing chorus of human rights observers from Amnesty International to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have roundly criticized the government for locking up perceived Aristide supporters on baseless charges.
While most of the focu
s is on popular figures -- like Father Gerard Jean-Juste, arrested in October -- untold numbers of young inmates, unknown but to their family and friends, fill prisons and makeshift jails.
Down a corridor in the General Hospital, past a woman shot through the shins, five men are chained to gurneys. Two sleep on the tile floor.
Martissaint Dario Luisent, 27, shows two infected bullet wounds on one leg and the chain pulled tight around the ankle of the other.
He says he had not been to court yet, and had not moved from the gurney since he arrived Oct. 11.
It is Nov. 20.
According to Luisent, he was arrested for having dreadlocks. The officers shaved his head and put a hood over him. Thinking he was about to be executed, he ran and was shot in the leg.
His family has no idea where he is.
The man on the gurney next to him is 22-year-old perfume salesman Gregory Moise. He says he got caught in the crossfire of a police shootout in the suburb of Carrefour. He came to
the hospital on his own -- and was arrested.
A reporter talking to them is soon ordered to leave by a police officer. On the way out, a hospital worker pulls him aside and said five dead Lavalas partisans came in the day before, one with his head cut off. They were trucked straight to mass graves outside the city.
More and more, Haitians meet this anonymous fate, leaving little evidence for murder investigations. The government-run morgue is a vision of hell -- open but no longer functioning because hospital officials cannot get the refrigeration to work. A dump truck is parked outside waiting for the next run up the coast.
The insecurity affects everybody.
''When my son goes to school and I hear gunshots I scream like my tongue is going to come out of my mouth,'' said Antonide la France, owner of a small market in the marginally middle-class neighborhood of Place Cazeau.
To buy her goods she must now go to the more expensive marketplaces up the hill in Petionville beca
use downtown is too dangerous.
''I wish somebody would come up with a master plan and get both parties together, because nothing is working right now,'' she said. ``No one can buy anything.''
LIFE GOES ON
Yet on a certain level, life moves stubbornly along in Haiti, as it always does. When there is no shooting, the streets choke up with traffic and sidewalk merchants and smiling schoolchildren in pressed uniforms and little backpacks.
Every morning on Delmas, a main boulevard through town, women sweep the sidewalks and gutters. The heaps of refuse that plagued the city in March are mostly gone. Young people go to nightclubs in Petionville, and gardeners still trim the hedges around mansions on the ridge.
Philippe Armand, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti, says Latortue is doing the best he can, given the situation he was handed.
''The government is functioning in an environment that is very difficult,'' he said.
The police force i
s tiny, 3,000 officers to patrol a raucous and rugged terrain. Armand and other supporters of the current administration say Aristide hobbled the country by looting government coffers. They say only the United Nations' peacekeepers can disarm the gangs. So far, they have been reluctant to do so.
Just two hours before, gunfire broke out in short bursts around the National Palace. Cars careened every which way to escape. Crowds of people ran -- not so much sprinting in terror, but jogging with a ''Here we go again'' resignation. A few were even smiling.
''I have a downtown office I can't even open right now,'' Armand said. ``I had a client today who was supposed to come sign a contract for medical insurance, but he can't do it. When you have insecurity, you can't move.''
For rich and poor, life in Haiti gets narrower every day.
In the Wharf Jeremie slum, 28-year-old mother Filamen Orange slowly wastes away to a disease no one has diagnosed. She has neither the money nor
the courage to set off into dangerous terrain to see a doctor.
In her tin-and-cardboard shack, she and her four children sleep on a mattress made of an old door propped up on rocks and cinder blocks. The floor is still moist from the rainy season, when the water comes up to her knees.
The fatherless family holds no hope for government relief.
''I don't believe in humans anymore,'' Orange said. ``I just believe in God.''
The lifeline of this neighborhood is the creaky ships that come loaded with charcoal from the provinces -- an economy of burned sticks. Men earn a dollar or so a day loading bags high on carts and tugging them down a rutted road through pits of mud to the market. These days, the boats come half as often as they did a few months ago.
Orange's friend, Elsie Dejamie, 22, says she has to eat clay to give breast milk to her 1-year-old boy, Belange.
''When I don't have enough food, I eat the dirt,'' Dejamie said. ``When I eat dirt it gives me m
Belange has the reddish hair of malnutrition. Dejamie's other two children, ages 6 and 8, have never gone to school because she cannot buy them uniforms.
But for now, at least they are safe. The violence that ripped through their neighborhood in February and March has subsided. Outside her home, little boys happily fly kites made of trash bags and sticks.
Up the road in Cite Soleil, the situation is a nightmare.
The main entry point is a neighborhood controlled by a gang leader named ''Labaniere,'' who once supported Aristide but is now raining terror upon his loyalists in the rest of the slum.
A whole swath around his base is a ghost town -- the no man's land of a guerrilla war. Homes are charred along the main highway, Route 9. Only dogs and pigs dare cross from one side to the other.
To buy food, women from 33 of Cite Soleil's 34 neighborhoods must trudge through a fetid marsh, board rickety sailboats at the wharf and sail across the harbor to
market in La Saline.
A group of men on Avenue Soleil show the consequences for those who try to make it on foot. They pull out a gruesome photo of two bodies on the street. They say the victims -- Nickerson Jean Baptiste and Renauld Viloire -- were killed on Nov. 15. No one ever retrieved their remains.
The same fate met Jean Marquinde's little brother David, who was drumming in a pro-Lavalas band when gang members opened fire. The 19-year-old couldn't run fast enough with his big drum and was hit by a rock. When he got up, an attacker knifed him and threw him in a ditch. There, he was stoned to death and swallowed by the mud.
Such stories go on and on.
Rene Momplaisir, a Lavalas activist in the slum, keeps a blue student's composition book filled with the names of the executed since Aug. 30 -- 43 bodies identified, at least two dozen more beheaded and unidentifiable.
He says all the violence is political.
''Labaniere is working for the bourgeoisie,'' Momplaisi
r said. ``They are against the poor. They will kill anyone who has anything to do with Lavalas.''
In this part of the city, where Aristide still holds almost messianic support, residents are in open rebellion and constant fear of attack.
One day, armed young men stand guard at one entrance and train an M-14 rifle on a visitor's car. A trench is dug across the road, and they have to lay out metal planks when they decide to let him in.
Another day, farther in, three other men jump out with automatic rifles and a shotgun. Emil's cousin, Frantzie Antonio, is in the car and waves them down.
In the Bwa Nef marketplace, a skinny man with dreadlocks grabs for a .38 in his waistband and threatens Antonio for letting the visitor in. They scream back and forth.
In the fading light, women are walking back from the market across the marsh with buckets on their heads. Route 9 is empty.
A 20-year-old named Virio lifts his shirt and shows a body riddled with
so many white bullet wounds it looks like he has small pox. He says he was shot running from police. The lead from a shotgun blast is in his leg. He says he is scared to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested.
The two men are still scuffling, drawing others into the fray. A little boy pops a balloon and everyone jumps. Momplaisir -- a well-dressed young man with shined shoes and a brief case -- arrives and tells everyone to calm down. He has no gun, but the crowd defers to Lavalas.
Antonio rushes forward with one more photo to show. It is a portrait of Aristide.
''Our father,'' he said. ``We are ready to die for his return.''