I got a call yesterday afternoon from a newspaper. They asked me to track down a Haitian family and interview them – the only information they had was the general area where they live and some of their names. “I think this will be a test of your detective abilities! Also, don’t take any risks,” the editor wrote to me.
Of course, it wasn’t too difficult to find them. Everyone knows everyone. I called Weed, a motorcycle taxi driver I met after the earthquake who has since become a trusted friend (he’s teaching me how to drive a moto). He picked me up and we headed out, camera slung over my shoulder.
Over some broken, pothole-filled roads out of Delmas, until we hit Grand Rue and weaved through traffic. I remembered how eerie Grand Rue was, the morning after the earthquake, smelling faintly of bodies, quiet and empty of cars and people. Life goes on.
Weed pulled over into a dim alley. Hopped off the moto and asked two men sitting against wall if they knew the family. I mispronounced the surname at first, then got it right. “Oh yeah we know them. He’ll take you there.”
We were led through a maze of narrow alleys – past old men playing checkers, naked children bathing, women washing clothes. Expressions that sometimes seem like glares softened into little smiles each time I said hello. A baby girl sleeping face down on the grimy concrete, a smudge of feces on her butt. I fought off the impulse to snap a photo.
The family is desperately poor, living under a thin tarp that leaks in the rain in an alley. 19 people all together in one tiny space. When we finished the interviews thirty minutes later, the same guy led us back out, taking a different route. “Pi rapide konsa” – it’s faster this way.
Arrived back at the guest house. Amber Munger, a human rights worker, saw me walk in. “You should know something,” she said.
Since I arrived in Haiti last September, I’ve never once thought twice about traveling the way I do – whether by moto, tap tap or on foot, without “security” and certainly not inside an SUV with the windows up, like most NGO workers. We go places, we talk to people, they’re kind and helpful, and usually we find what we’re looking for. I’ve been told motos are too dangerous; I’ll be killed in car crash (I’ve seen far fewer accidents in the streets in Port-Au-Prince than in the States, perhaps three total). I’ve been told certain areas are too dangerous; I’ll be robbed. It’s never happened and I’ve never felt in danger.
After the earthquake, editors from a big media outlet staying at the Villa Creole hotel contacted me. When I mentioned that I go in and out of Cite Soleil on a moto frequently, they were amazed. They published my story about the reaction to the UN’s high-energy biscuits in a Cite Soleil camp, but not before adding lines about gangs and violence to it. When I complained, they simply edited the story days later without notation.
Most times I interact with foreigners, they’re worried about violence in Haiti. I think it’s based more on a fear of poor black people than on reality.
But yesterday was a little different. Amber speaks kreyol fluently. She’s been working in Haiti for 13 years, recently in a desolate area called Anse Rouge with women’s groups.
She said a friend of a friend was kidnapped days ago near this area, where I’m staying, called Delmas 33. “It’s happening again,” she said.
Haiti went through a wrenching period of constant kidnappings after the 2004 coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. About five years ago. It was mostly Haitians who were taken. Some foreigners too.
Earlier this month, two aid workers from Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped in upper-class Petionville – the green zone on the UN’s security map – and released a few days later. They were out late at night, which is stupid.
Still, it probably makes sense to be a little more cautious than before.
And there’s the question: why kidnappings again, now? After several years during which they happened relatively rarely? After an earthquake?
I recently interviewed Jean Luc “Djalòki” Dessables, a Co-Coordinator of the Haiti Response Coalition, for a story that’s not ready yet. He lived through the last period of kidnappings, and has seen so many blan come and go from Haiti. His insights into the reasons for kidnappings, as well as a host of other topics, are well worth hearing. You probably won’t hear them anywhere else. He’s speaking for himself, not the Coalition. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Haiti is a safe country without military. It becomes unsafe, when militaries are here. Haiti is a safe country when we don’t have the presence of too many people to aid us with a lot of money and a lot of white skin.
I’m not saying people from North American and European countries shouldn’t come here – of course they should. Not only do we need help right now… We also have things that we can contribute. Maybe they need our help. Even if it’s awkward to hear that in this situation. But in the spirit of solidarity, Haitians are a people who want to connect and to be in solidarity with all people in the world. And of course we want to come out of the isolation that we’ve been in forever.
But whenever there’s an increase in violence, or murders in the streets or even kidnappings, it is directly connected to an increased presence of white people with money, even if they are not the ones being kidnapped. But the money is there. And the visibility, the eye is on Haiti. Or very strangely, at the end of the [peacekeeping] mandate of the UN that has to be voted… the raise of violence justifies the extension of the mandate for a few months.
Everywhere needs some regulatory force, some security. But I think that in the world, the Haitian people are one of the rare people who can assure a minimum level of security by themselves without armed force. Maybe not in ways that would please people who say that they are democratic. It may not look very democratic from a certain perspective.
But in normal communities – and I’m not necessarily talking about the city right now because the city is completely out of control… But even the cities. Like a city the size of Port-au-Prince, if you compare it with other cities in the world of the same size, I think it’s fair and safe to say that Port-au-Prince is one of the safest.
Listen to the entire interview with Djalòki below. MP3.
Update: I’m told that the man who was kidnapped near here has since been released, after being beaten and held one night. I’ll add that Djalòki’s words are remarkably prescient, having been made before we learned of this recent round of kidnappings.