Violence Holds Haiti Hostage Ahead of Elections
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today we turn to the continuing struggles in Haiti. Violence still plagues the capital, Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings are the latest scourge. Despite the presence of 7,400 UN troops, Haitians say things are only getting worse. The first elections since the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year are set for November, and officials are hoping for some improvement in the situation by then. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
The armored personnel carrier lumbers out of a fortified base on its way to the most dangerous area in the country. Inside it, an interpreter who grew up in the US, but recently returned to Haiti, sits uneasily.
Mr. ALAN FORREST(ph) (Translator, United Nations Stabilization Mission): Try not to get your head outside a lot 'cause, you know, I think they have their own snipers, too. That means they could shoot you from the top of a building they position themselves in.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alan Forrest is 22 years old. He translates for the 750-strong Jordanian contingent of the United Nations stabilization mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH forces, whose mandate began almost a year ago here. And today he's headed back into Cite Soleil.
Mr. FORREST: Well, for me, it's kind of like a war zone 'cause there's shooting everywhere, you know. This is the first time I've experienced these kind of things. It's something. It's something. It's something.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The largest slum in Port-au-Prince, Cite Soleil meaning Sun City, rings the sea like dirty foam. Poverty is endemic here, violence unceasing. Tin shacks squeeze around tiny alleyways strewn with garbage. A former police station is pointed out. It's been gutted. Unless they're on a raid, Haitian police won't come here. MINUSTAH forces are the only law around...
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...which would lead one to believe that the residents here would be happy to see the Jordanian soldiers when they pull up at a seaside marketplace. But instead people stare sullenly while buying and selling bedraggled-looking fruit and vegetables from rickety wooden tables in the stifling heat. Wearing a typical headscarf, fruit seller Marcelle Cheri(ph) speaks quietly but intensely about the situation in Cite Soleil.
Ms. MARCELLE CHERI (Fruit Seller): (Through Translator) These days MINUSTAH is shooting a lot. We can't sleep at night. It's always like that. The children can't go to school. Everything is blocked. The way things should be going, they aren't. Everyone lives with fear.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Major Mando al-Amari(ph) is a spokesman for the Jordanians. He worked in Iraq at the Jordanian hospital in the restive city of Fallujah through some of the worst of the violence there.
Major MANDO AL-AMARI (Spokesman, MINUSTAH): The problem I (unintelligible) with the gangs, not with the locals. So sometimes there is--the gangs began to shoot at our soldiers, and the soldiers return back the fire to the gangs. So we don't shoot at civilians because we are here to protect them, not to shoot them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But civilians do get caught in the cross fire, and others have also died because of fighting between rival gangs. At the end of March, a turncoat anti-Aristide gang leader known as Lemaire was killed with the support of his nemesis, Dread Wilme, a pro-Aristide gang leader, who is now the most wanted figure in the area.
Without doubt, the gangs control Cite Soleil. MINUSTAH forces supposedly try to contain the violence, but they are not quelling it. Since September, political and gang violence has killed 678 people, including 20 policemen. Several MINUSTAH have also been killed.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the white Jordanian armored personnel carrier, Alan Forrest, the interpreter, sits with a cloth over his face until the door closes.
Mr. FORREST: I cover my face for my protection, so they won't see my face--so they won't see my face. Hey, follow me at my house. You never know. They could. It's better to protect yourself.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The other arm of the United Nations' mission here is CivPol, a contingent of 1,400 international police officers mandated to advise and train the Haitian national police. The Haitian police are the country's best hope to get things under control, but all is not well.
Unidentified Man: ...charging some batteries. And then if you want to play his TV or radio, something of that nature, it's a very ...(unintelligible) system.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the dilapidated offices of the regional commander in charge of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area, a solar-powered lighting system is being installed with CivPol help. Frequent blackouts make even basic office-based police work almost impossible. But that is the most easily addressed of the challenges.
Sergeant GUY BOULLION(ph) (CivPol; Retired NYPD Officer): Well, I guess the bandits are getting bolder and bolder, and the national police force is not really equipped to face these guys 'cause these guys are using heavy weaponry far more superior than what the police has.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sergeant Guy Boullion is a retired NYPD officer and a Haitian-American who left here young. He's part of a team of 25 American tactical advisers taking part in the CivPol mission. His brother, a volunteer, is installing the solar system.
Along with the police being outgunned, they're also outmanned. One UN official estimates that there are, across the country, 6,000 hard-core gang members and ex-military; there are only 4,000 Haitian police. And at the current rate of training, CivPol officials say it could take 10 years to get that number to 12,000 to control the country of eight million.
Sgt. BOULLION: This is a war. There's a war going on here. It's not classical policing like we do in New York City. There's a war.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Privately CivPol officers complain about their mandate. With lawlessness rife, they're not allowed to make arrests or stop someone from committing a crime, even if they're witness to it. And the badly paid Haitian police lack basic police tools like radios, cars and uniforms.
But far from being perceived as victims, human rights organizations view some among the police as victimizers, even though they say things have improved since the Aristide days. Just last week the national police spokesperson announced that some among their number were involved in the recent wave of kidnappings, too. Carlo Lochard is a departmental director of the Haitian police. Lochard says that the police are under attack, which is why they have to be firm. Since September, 20 have been killed, some of them beheaded.
Mr. CARLO LOCHARD (Departmental Director, Haitian Police): (Through Translator) They speak of human rights. What are human rights? Don't we, too, have rights?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: CivPol officials were surprised to learn from a journalist that, according to a list on the US Department of Homeland Security Web page regarding Haiti, Carlo Lochard was fired from the police on the 9th of October 1996 for human rights abuses. An official with Haiti's police confirms that Lochard was fired and then rehired in 2001, although he could not give a reason for either.
After a recent press conference, the interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, spoke to NPR. His government has come under criticism in some quarters. Supporters of Aristide say that the Latortue administration is carrying out a vendetta against them, stoking the flames of political violence. Latortue denies that there's a problem and says that Haiti will be completely pacified ahead of the elections in November.
Prime Minister GERARD LATORTUE (Haiti): Tell the truth. We have violence in Cite Soleil. We have it in Bel Air. We don't have it all over Port-au-Prince. I just came back from a trip all around the southern part of the country. Violence is non-existent, so Haiti is not Port-au-Prince.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is clear is that Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is gasping to survive. The divide between the majority of the poor and the wealthy is starker than ever. Outside the high stone walls of the expensive restaurant Cafe Albert(ph) in the upper-class neighborhood of Pierre T'on Bille(ph), there are lamps lit by the restaurant generator. Students huddle underneath them like moths to read and do homework when there's no electricity in their poor neighborhoods, which is often. Among them one evening is Gerard Nodez(ph). He's 22 years old and studying psychology.
Mr. GERARD NODEZ (Student): (French spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: `Looking at the situation of the country, we don't really see the ray of hope right now. But as long as we have life, we have hope,' he says simply. The young student turns back to his book, the dark held at bay by the small pool of light. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.