“All Elements of Society Are Participating” – Impressions of Cap Haitien’s Movement Against the UN

Coffins block a downtown road in Cap Haitien.

I spoke to Democracy Now and Flashpoints Radio yesterday. A Free Speech Radio News story featuring some of the voices in the piece below aired on Friday.

CAP-HAITIEN – The first barricade looked harmless enough. Foot-long rocks piled next to each other in a line.

But as the bus driver slowed down, flying rocks landed in the street – thrown by youths crouching in the bushes up the hill.

“We don’t really have a country! The police don’t do anything!” a nun sitting across from me complained after the bus driver negotiated, with a little cash, our way past.

The man next to her said the country will always be mired in problems until a leader like Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro takes power.

We must have passed a dozen more barricades, most unmanned.

After Limbe, where cholera has killed at least 100 people, we came to the biggest “barikad” yet in the highway. Thick trees lay across the road and hundreds of people, a few holding machetes, blocked the way.

The bus driver once again descended to negotiate, but didn’t appear to be making any progress. Most passengers grabbed their belongings and got out.

I decided to go too. As I gathered my things, there was a debate among the remaining passengers:

“He’s a blan (foreigner), he’s going to get hurt.”
“No no no, he speaks Creole, he’ll be fine.”
“They’re going to think he’s MINUSTAH. They’re not logical.”

MINUSTAH is the acronym for the UN peacekeeping mission. As I stepped off the bus, people standing at the road called me over and urged me not to go. It was the third day of so-called “cholera riots” against foreign troops blamed for introducing the disease into the country.

Someone said the protesters are violent “chimere,” a word for political gangs. I explained that it’s my job as a journalist to go talk to them.

Then two Haitian journalists who were on the bus pushed their way through the crowd and wrapped their arms around me. Everyone agreed, finally, that together with the two guys I could get through the barricades.

Elizer and Duval were coming back home to Cap Haitien. They were scared for me, saying under no circumstances should I talk with protesters or take photos. I reluctantly agreed to follow their instructions.

I wondered if perhaps the UN peacekeeping mission was right in saying these were protests were organized by a politician or gang. “Enemies of stability and democracy,” MINUSTAH mission head Edmond Mulet called them. So far, I’d only seen young men in the street.

But as we passed through each barricade, everyone – young girls and rotund market women mingling with demonstrators yelled out, “MINUSTAH ou ye?”

I yelled back, “Non, mwen se yon journalis Amerikan.” The suspicious stares softened into smiles and understanding looks. After passing the third barricade that way, we started laughing. Continue Reading…

Anger Erupts at U.N. in Haiti as Cholera Toll Nears 1,000

At a recent Port-au-Prince protest, a sign reads: Bill Clinton equals Cholera.

Published today by Inter-Press Service. Also spoke to Flashpoints Radio about cholera and the protests earlier this evening.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 16, 2010 (IPS) – “People are going to take the body to MINUSTAH to show them what they did,” Jean-Luc Surfin told IPS by phone as riots erupted against Haiti’s U.N. peacekeeping force on Monday in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

Surfin, a 24-year-old bank teller, said he walked by a young man lying dead in the street blocks away from his home, who bystanders said was shot by peacekeeping troops.

At least two protesters have been reported killed, one shot in the back, a local official told the media. U.N. troops say they acted in self-defence.

“I think the people are frustrated right now. That’s why they’re all over the street. They say they’re going to fight to the death,” Surfin told IPS.

He said demonstrators erected barricades in the street and pelted troops with stones and bottles. Two police stations were set on fire.

Protests were reported in the cities of Hinche and Gonaives in Haiti’s cholera-ravaged central region as well. Radio Levekanpe in Hinche reported that protesters tried to leave the coffin of a man who died of cholera in front of the city’s UN peacekeeping base.

Demonstrators blame foreign peacekeepers for introducing the infectious disease into the country. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says the strain of cholera bacteria spreading in Haiti matches the one endemic in South Asia.

An estimated 200,000 people could be sickened before the epidemic is brought under control, an effort that could take up to six months.

The outbreak has killed over 900 people, just two weeks before scheduled elections. Continue Reading…

UN Peacekeeper to Photographer (me): Shoot Me and I’ll Shoot You

From Mac McClelland’s latest Haiti dispatch (photo from Gaetantguevera’s photostream):

When I showed this amazing picture to my friend, after she registered what she was looking at, her eyes went huge while she exclaimed, “Oh my god!” with her hand over her mouth. The scene is a protest last week in Port-au-Prince. The guy on the left is a clearly unarmed and videotaping journalist from Texas named Ansel Herz, whom I happened to work with when I was in Haiti last month. The uniformed fellow pointing a gun directly at his face is a United Nations peacekeeper.

I didn’t meet many (okay, any) Haitian fans of MINUSTAH, the UN stabilization force that’s been in the country since 2004. I have, for the record, met some MINUSTAH who are definitely good guys and have, for example, helped a woman in labor get to the hospital, and helped stop a man who was trying to kill his wife for refusing to have sex with him. But the force has also shot civilians. It’s had to have meetings about how not to sexually abuse the Haitian population. In fact, last week’s protest erupted after the UN officially renewed MINUSTAH’s mandate. Some of the protesters’ complaints, which echo those I heard while in-country, are that MINUSTAH doesn’t actually do anything to protect civilians living in filthy, violent, rape-infested displacement camps, and that the money could be better spent dealing with those issues.

I asked Ansel how he ended up on the business end of a UN gun, just in case there was any kind of conflict or missing context surrounding this photo. Not so much, he says: “Maybe they felt threatened by my camera.”