PORT-AU-PRINCE, May 25, 2010 (IPS) – United Nations peacekeeping troops responded to a rock-throwing demonstration by university students Monday evening with a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets in the area around Haiti’s National Palace, sending masses of displaced Haitians running out of tent camps into the streets, according to witnesses.
“That child was gravely injured in the face! It was miserable, they were throwing gas everywhere,” said Junior Joel, a young man hanging with friends at night outside the palace – still partially collapsed from the January earthquake.
Three volunteer doctors from the NGO Partners in Health who were working in the emergency room of the General Hospital said they treated at least six individuals with wounds from rubber bullets.
“They were bleeding,” Sarah McMillan, a doctor from New Hampshire, told IPS. “There was a little girl with a big laceration on her face. It needed about 10 stitches. She’ll probably have a scar.”
The girl was discharged from the hospital and could not be found in the tent camp as of publication time.
Thousands of families are crowded into the public squares in the Champs du Mars zone around the palace, after the earthquake killed at least 200,000 people and drove nearly two million from destroyed neighbourhoods.
A coalition of political organisations called Tet Kole, Haitian Creole for “Heads Together”, has staged protests in the area for the past month, demanding the resignation of President René Préval over his handling of the post-earthquake crisis.
The walls of the Faculty of Ethnology school are dotted with graffiti denouncing Préval and the United Nations. Students said they gave Brazilian peacekeeping troops stationed in jeeps outside the campus the middle finger sign late Monday afternoon.
When the troops tried to enter the campus, angrily calling students thieves and vagabonds, the students showered them with rocks. As the soldiers fled, they fired three bullet rounds in the air and one of them struck the front-facing wall of the school, students said.
When the troops returned in bigger vehicles, Frantz Mathieu Junior said he ran to hide in a bathroom, but the soldiers kicked the thin wooden door open. Junior said he was forced to the ground and kicked repeatedly, then taken away. He says he was force-fed while in detention.
The students showed IPS the cracks in the wooden door and the bullet hole, next to a second-storey window, on Tuesday. They took to the streets in an angry protest, throwing rocks.
Edmond Mulet, the head of the peacekeeping mission – known by the acronym MINUSTAH – issued a statement blaming an unnamed student for “the provocation” of throwing stones at a patrol, but apologising for the troops’ intrusion on university grounds to seize him.
U.N. troops never fired any bullets or tear gas on Monday, said MINUSTAH spokesperson David Wimhurst. He said only pepper spray and rubber bullets were used to quell an out-of-control protest.
CNN crews heard gunshots, smelled tear gas and saw gas canisters littering the area surrounding the palace. According to witnesses from the surrounding tent camps, U.N. troops blanketed the area with tear gas and fired rubber bullets at 6 p.m. on Monday.
“Everyone ran because nobody wants to be around when there’s so much gas,” Joseph Marie-ange, a 24-year-old mother of four, told IPS. “They’re abusive. They shot the gas in here and the children and elders were falling, everyone was feeling the effects.”
Hours after the protests and swirling gas dissipated, Levita Mondesir trudged with her three-month-old baby towards the General Hospital’s exit.
“We live in Place Petion, across from the Ethnology school,” she told IPS. “The students came, then MINUSTAH released the gas. When I got back to the camp, everyone was running, so I ran too.”
“I tried to cover my child and told the other children to lay down under the bed,” she continued. “There was smoke and the kids and people were falling. My baby wasn’t responding, I was worried he died. I was crying and others helped me take him to the hospital.”
She caught a motorcycle taxi to the hospital and received a reserve ticket for her baby to be x-rayed the next day. Tines Clerge, her husband, said he can’t continue living there now. “I can’t stay at Chanmas anymore,” he told IPS.
The opposition protests continued Tuesday afternoon in Chanmas. Scores of U.N. troops and Haitian police ringed the national palace with barricades. The demonstrators accuse President Préval of seeking to grab power by extending his mandate past the original end date. Parliament approved the extension.
Some are also upset with the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission, which directs the spending of nearly 10 billion dollars in aid money. A majority of the commission members are foreigners, though Préval has a final veto on all decisions.
“If they want to suppress the protest, why didn’t they shoot the gas at the school where the students are?” asked Malia Villa, an organiser with the Haitian women’s group KOFAVIV, who fled the Chanmas area Monday night. “How can they shoot it in the middle of the camp, where we have children and families? They say they’re here for security in the country, but how can the government work with them now when they do this?”
“We can’t continue to tolerate this anymore. It’s revolting to us,” she told IPS, throwing up her hands.
U.N. troops have been dogged by persistent accusations of abuse since their mission was established in 2004 after the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Incidents occurred in 2008 and 2009 in which Haitian witnesses said troops recklessly fired their weapons, killing or injuring civilians, while MINUSTAH internal investigations cleared their troops of wrongdoing.
Further political demonstrations are scheduled for Thursday, according to opposition groups.
Update 5/26: One blogger says he witnessed a UN armored vehicle firing rounds of rubber bullets into the crowd. CEPR blogged about my article, adding some historical context about the MINUSTAH’s forays into Cite Soleil. And David adds in the comments that protesters yesterday oppose President Preval but also spoke against Edmond Mulet, the UN mission’s head.
Update 5/27: At a UN press conference this morning I asked Edmond Mulet about MINUSTAH’s response to Monday’s demonstrations, mentioning witness accounts of rubber bullets being fired from an armored vehicle and the little girl struck in the face. Mulet responded, “We are investigating what happened and why these crowd control mechanisms, or weapons, were used… Those are facts that we are investigating. It is true, it happened. So we are trying determine why and under what the circumstances were around that. The investigation has been launched.”
A UN spokesperson later told me his Monday claim that no tear gas was fired by UN troops was incorrect. In fact, 32 tear gas canisters, as well as flash grenades, were launched.