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25125: Craig (news) A giant Haitian slum that suddenly matters (fwd)
From: Dan Craig <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A giant Haitian slum that suddenly matters
*By Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg* The New York Times
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2005
*PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti* Sitting at the gateway of the nation's capital, Cité
Soleil is an unsightly birthmark of modern Haiti, a broiling Haitian slum of
shacks, dust and ditches filled with human waste. It is home to several hundred
thousand people who now live with virtually no government services, no police
officers and only an occasional helping hand from international aid groups.
Yet with national elections scheduled for this fall, what happens in Cité
Soleil is increasingly important to the world beyond its squalor. Not only does
it have one of the biggest blocks of potential voters - many of whom back the
ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide - but it also can generate the kind of
violence that could disrupt those elections.
For United Nations peacekeeping forces, bringing some semblance of order to
Cité Soleil and giving its residents a chance to vote in the elections is seen
as an important step in establishing a new, credible government in Haiti. But
while United Nations troops have managed to set up command posts in sections of
other poor, violent neighborhoods, large parts of Cité Soleil remain all but
Cité Soleil is now so foreboding that the international peacekeepers, who wear
flak jackets and drive armored personnel carriers, conduct no regular patrols
in its densely populated neighborhoods. In their last operation, about 400 UN
troops entered the slum on July 6 and fought a five-hour gun battle with gangs
that control the area.
Numerous residents were wounded in the cross-fire, and the incident has further
embittered many Aristide supporters in Cité Soleil as the elections approach.
"Cité Soleil is symbolic of Haiti's potential of creating a new society that is
inclusive rather than exclusive," said Robert Maguire, director of programs in
international affairs at Trinity University in Washington and an expert on
Haiti. He added that if Cité Soleil was not part of the voting, "I think the
elections will be far less than credible."
Gangs regularly monitor who comes and goes on the only two roads leading into
the slum, according to relief workers. A Peruvian soldier stationed on the edge
of Cite Soleil was shot recently by a sniper, according to a spokesman for the
On a recent day, local political leaders escorted reporters for The New York
Times into Cité Soleil, a largely treeless tract of tin huts and crumbling
cinder block. With no running water, drainage ditches are a rancid mix of human
waste and garbage that must be crossed by walking on large stones or on a
narrow bridge with missing wooden planks.
The neighborhood leaders, all members of Fanmi Lavalas, the political party
founded by Aristide, wanted reporters to see what they say is evidence of
indiscriminate killings by peacekeeping troops during the raid in July. The
leaders blame the international community, particularly the United States, for
Aristide's ouster and for setting up an interim government that is now
supported by the UN.
According to the UN version of the raid, troops responded to months of violence
in Cité Soleil by staging a predawn assault with armored vehicles and
Their prime target was a gang leader named Emmanuel Wilmer, also known as Dread
Wilmer. Wilmer and other gang members were killed in the ensuing battle.
In a hut, baking in Cité Soleil's mid-day heat, 13 residents of the
neighborhood, brought together by the political leaders, squeezed around a
small wooden bench to tell a different story. There, they laid out seven
pictures of people, including women and children, who they said were killed by
"Here are the ones we had a chance to photograph before the dogs ate them,"
said René Momplaisir, a local Fanmi Lavalas leader.
Many of the victims appeared to have been shot in the head, though who fired
the bullets - UN troops or gang members - could not be independently verified.
"Why do people die like that?" Momplaisir said. "It's because there's no
justice in Haiti."
John Joseph Joel, a Fanmi Lavalas leader, said dozens of residents were killed
or wounded during the raid.
UN officials said in a statement that an undetermined number of innocent
bystanders "may have been injured or even killed." They also cited "unconfirmed
but numerous reports" that gangs killed residents after the troops left.
Olivia Gayraud, the administrator of a free hospital run by Médecins Sans
Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, said doctors there treated 27 gunshot
victims from the raid. Most were children and women, Gayraud said, including a
woman in her 28th week of pregnancy who lost her baby. The hospital declined to
identify the woman because of privacy concerns.
Gayraud said the total number of wounded was surely higher because young men
with bullet wounds often do not seek medical care for fear of being arrested or
even killed by the police.
Dr. Christophe Fournier, at Doctors Without Borders in New York, said that the
clinic in Haiti had treated 1,132 gunshot victims since it opened in December,
more than the combined total of gunshot victims treated at the group's clinics
around the world.
Most appear to be victims of gang violence. But, according to Gayraud, on July
6, most patients said that they had been shot by international peacekeepers.
In Cité Soleil's Bois Neuf neighborhood, where Wilmer, the gang leader, was
killed, several buildings still bear extensive scars of gunfire.
Juan Gabriel Valdes , who oversees United Nations operation in Haiti,
acknowledged in an interview that some bystanders were shot during the raid,
but he also accused gang members of using women and children as shields.
The attack was necessary, Valdes explained, "because this gang was threatening
the whole city and was attacking innocent people."
He said the operation took weeks to plan, and that it was changed three times
to try to minimize non-gang casualties.
United Nations officials said they are investigating the events, but declined
to provide further details.
Valdes said Cité Soleil had been particularly difficult to penetrate because it
is so big, the gangs so strong and the living conditions so wretched.
He also said he lacked troops trained and equipped for urban warfare.
The Fanmi Lavalas leaders who showed reporters around said they did not believe
in violence and they portrayed Wilmer as someone who tried to protect
neighborhood residents from a gang that threatened them.
Human rights workers say that some gangs - and there are a variety in Cité
Soleil - are terrorizing residents, and that rapes are a particular problem.
According to a report released late last year by the University of Miami School
of Law, some violence in Cité Soleil had been stoked by Haitian business
interests who backed an anti-Aristide gang. The leader of that gang was later
Valdes said that the country was awash in guns, some distributed by political
parties and even by "some members of the higher social sectors in this
And he added: "The abundance of weapons in this country is a sickness of the
whole Haitian society."
When reporters from The Times walked through Cité Soleil, no weapons were seen
nor gunfire heard, which was very unusual, according to a human rights worker
who regularly visits the community.
The worker speculated that political leaders had helped to ensure that guns
were not visible during the visit.
But United Nations troops stationed on the outskirts of Cité Soleil say they
are fired on daily from inside the neighborhood, which has kept them from
conducting regular operations inside.
"We can do them but the problem is the collateral damage," said Colonel El
Ouafi Boulbars, a spokesman for the UN military force in Haiti.
That violence is also hampering election preparations in Cité Soleil.
Gerard Le Chevallier, the United Nations chief electoral officer in Haiti, said
a voter registration center had been open for several weeks in an industrial
area on the edge of Cité Soleil, but that is not where most people live. Le
Chevallier said a second center opened Thursday, in a more populated area of
the slum, and workers in one factory have also been registered. Registration
ends Sept. 15 for national elections this fall.