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25254: Wharram - News - Horrors persist in forsaken slum (fwd)
>From Bruce Wharram <email@example.com>
Posted on Tue, May. 31, 2005
Horrors persist in forsaken slum
In a Haitian slum, antigovernment gangs and U.N. peacekeepers have had
firefights in which many innocent civilians have suffered.
BY JOE MOZINGO
PORT-AU-PRINCE - The fight to restore stability in Haiti has narrowed down
to a messy, low-grade war in the capital's most forsaken slum, Cité Soleil,
where residents are regularly caught in gunfire between U.N. peacekeepers
and partisans of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The slum of 250,000 people is deserted of cars, whole blocks have burned and
fallen to rubble and residents don't even flinch when machine-gun fire
shatters the sleepy heat of an afternoon.
The standoff began in March, when more than 800 Jordanian, Peruvian and
Uruguayan soldiers rolled in to wrest control from the pro-Aristide
militants, establishing checkpoints along the perimeter and posts inside the
slum. Now they regularly exchange gunfire with gangs.
At a time when most other regions of the troubled country have at least
tentatively calmed down, the violence in Cité Soleil perpetuates the sense
of instability dogging Haiti and could threaten the credibility of elections
set for this fall.
Leaders of Aristide's Lavalas Family party have so far refused to
participate in the election process, in part because of the violence in Cité
Soleil and neighboring areas of downtown Port-au-Prince. They depict the
conflict in the slum -- one of their biggest strongholds -- as part of a
larger attack by the U.S.-backed interim government that replaced Aristide
after a revolt early last year.
No one knows how many people have died since March because neither police
nor peacekeepers pick up the bodies, and residents say many of the dead are
simply dumped in the hills north of the city.
Edna St. Plus, 14, was selling bread and coffee alongside a slum road when
U.N. peacekeepers opened fire on a passing car for reasons unknown to her. A
bullet tore through her abdomen.
Recovering at a hospital earlier this month, she said she didn't blame the
peacekeepers for the violence in her neighborhood, but the armed,
pro-Aristide young men known as chimres and widely blamed for a rash of
''Chimres are killing people in the streets,'' she said. ``They try to stop
drivers and if the drivers don't stop, they just shoot them. That hurts, to
see someone killed for a car.''
Although the U.N. peacekeepers have several checkpoints around the slum,
some entrances are wide open. And beyond those spots where they hunker down
in their armored vehicles, their presence is limited.
Whether they are making any progress in the area is difficult to say.
Young men openly roam the streets with assault weapons and World War-II era
rifles. Even younger boys -- some not even teenagers yet -- patrol the main
roads. They often look stoned and furiously question visitors at gunpoint.
Cité Soleil has long been a violent place, a mud-flat slum of desperately
poor people perpetually drawn into the maw of Haiti's sociopolitical
conflict by all varieties of persons claiming to help them.
It has remained a bastion of support for Aristide, a former slum priest,
after his ouster on Feb. 29, 2004 despite a devastating outbreak of internal
fighting last September.
Pro-Aristide gangs headed by Emmanuel ''Dread'' Wilmé clashed with rivals
backed by Aristide's political opponents. When The Herald visited in
November, the area was a scene of horror, with deserted streets, torched
homes and tales of dozens of murdered residents.
The gang war ended on March 31, when the anti-Aristide leader in the slums,
Thomas ''Labanye'' Robinson, was killed and dragged through the streets.
Now Wilmé's gang controls the entire slum-city, where many of its residents
still support Aristide with almost religious fervor.
''If Aristide were here, my eyes would be fixed,'' said Fritz Doudoute, 42,
who says he is going blind. ``I already see him coming in the plane.''
Earlier this month, one of Wilmé's militants, a 24-year-old who goes by the
name of Piman, met a reporter just around the corner from a U.N. checkpoint.
He walked through the mud with no shoes, carrying an assault rifle with two
At his hangout a few blocks away at least 20 people were gathered, several
of them with guns.
''They know we're here, but they won't come here,'' Piman said of the U.N.
The group alleged that the U.N. mission, known here by its French acronym,
MINUSTAH, randomly shoots into crowds. Soon, the staccato crack of automatic
gunfire rang over the neighborhood.
''MINUSTAH,'' Piman claimed.
MINUSTAH officers say they do not shoot unless they are clearly threatened.
Indeed, outside of Cité Soleil, the Haiti peacekeeping mission comes under
constant criticism for not having disarmed all sorts of militants.
''Forced disarmament in this situation would be very difficult without major
bloodshed,'' said Carlos Chagas Braga, assistant to the force commander.
``The population has suffered enough, especially in Cité Soleil. We do not
want to cause more harm there.''
But it is often unclear who shoots first -- or whether the shooting is
unprovoked. Muddying the issue even further: The dead are wholly unaccounted
for. Men who dig gravel and sand in the hills north of the capital told The
Herald they are paid by police and chimres alike to dispose of bodies at
night. The smell of death is redolent where they work.
And in a shantytown with tin walls and no clear battle lines, even the
living wounded often don't know who shot them.
James Camille, 17, was visiting his aunt at a hospital last month when
gunfire exploded nearby and a bullet ripped through both of his legs. He
assumes the shot -- for which he lost his left leg below the knee -- came
from gangs. ''The reality is MINUSTAH won't just shoot at anyone,'' he said.
Piman depicts his gang as defending the slum from incursions by Haitian
police more intent on arresting and killing Aristide supporters than helping
the slum's people. Human-rights groups have accused police of exactly that,
and foreign journalists witnessed police shooting at peaceful pro-Aristide
protesters on Feb. 28.
''We just use the guns for protection,'' Piman said. ``We don't want to go
to war with the U.N.''
But the gangs have shot at peacekeepers, killing a Filipino soldier in Cité
Soleil last month. And armed robberies and kidnappings have become epidemic
in the area.
Haiti's main highway is virtually empty where it runs along the slum because
truckers who dare to use it are routinely stopped and robbed. High-end SUVs,
apparently stolen, are parked in muddy alleyways inside.
Few residents will speak about the gangs' actions for fear of retaliation.
And it is difficult for reporters to speak to anyone outside their presence.
Out on the tidal flats, among pig pens and rotting flotsam and blinding sun,
a 20-year-old mother was asked if she had any hope that things would ever
get better in Cité Soleil.
Bernard Josef, who is one of Piman's crew, quickly chimed in: ``Only when
Aristide comes back! Only when Aristide comes back!''
The woman nodded and mumbled, ``Oui.''
In a brief private moment later, she admitted that she is scared of the
gangs. ''We don't say anything because we want to stay alive,'' she said.
© 2005 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.