Haiti: A state of siege


IPS — Nearly two months since UN troops began launching heavy attacks that they say are aimed against gang members in poor neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, roadblocks and barbed wire remain in place and the atmosphere is grim.

Mercius Lubin of the Boston district of Cite Soleil told IPS that an assault earlier this month left his only two children dead. "It is the noise of MINUSTAH's [the UN peacekeeping force] fire that awoke us."

It was about 11pm on February 1, he said, and the family was sleeping on the floor because UN soldiers had advised everyone in the area to do so. "Then they started shooting … I saw that I was wounded in one of my arms, my wife in one of her feet and my two young girls were bathed in their own blood."

He said it was MINUSTAH bullets that had sprayed across his home killing his daughters. IPS viewed the corpses of Stephanie, seven, and Alexandra Lubin, four. A top MINUSTAH military commander acknowledges the UN fired shots that day. Residents also state that UN vehicles fired heavily down the road which the Lubin home sits along.

Officials of MINUSTAH, whose military contingent is headed by Brazil, have admitted to "collateral damage" but say they are there to fight gangsters at the request of the Rene Preval government.

Speaking at a press conference at UN headquarters on February 28, Joel Boutroue, deputy special representative of the secretary-general for Haiti, referred to the allegation that MINUSTAH soldiers had shot "two little girls", but said that gang members were responsible for the killings.

"[The UN soldiers] are taking extra care in minimising the number of civilian casualties", he said. "The rules of engagement are very clear — they only shoot when shot at … The number of casualties has been very limited."

However, Boutroue acknowledged that while the UN does investigate some specific cases and attempts to tally casualties in local clinics after large operations, they do not determine whether people have been hit by MINUSTAH or other weapons. "That's impossible to know", he said.

UN and government officials have pointed to one gang leader in particular named Evans. In recent weeks they have arrested a number of men from his group.

But many residents and local human rights activists say that scores of people who have no involvement with gangs have been killed, wounded and arrested in the raids and fighting. A climate of fear persists in much of Cite Soleil.

IPS observed that buildings throughout Cite Soleil were pockmarked by bullets; many showed huge holes made by heavy calibre UN weapons, as residents attest. Often pipes that brought in water to the slum community now lay shattered.

A recently declassified document from the US embassy in Port-au-Prince revealed that during an operation carried out in July 2005, MINUSTAH expended 22,000 bullets over several hours. In the report, an official from MINUSTAH acknowledged that "given the flimsy construction of homes in Cite Soleil and the large quantity of ammunition expended, it is likely that rounds penetrated many buildings, striking unintended targets".

A group of religious and human rights groups active within Cite Soleil, the Haitian Nonviolent, Nonpartisan Coalition (HNVNPC), is attempting to revive a peace process. A spokesperson for the group, Evel Fanfan, declared it was "forged out of the desperation of victims and leaders in the battlefields of Cite Soleil" and called "immediately for a ceasefire".

The group is attempting to work with the Preval government's National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reinsertion, headed up by Alix Fils Aime, to renew the possibility for a peace process. Already one armed group has offered to turn in its weapons for amnesty and government investment in the community.

A hardened UN strategy became apparent just days before Christmas, when UN officials stated they were entering Cite Soleil to capture or kill gangsters and kidnappers in the Bois Neuf zone.

According to some residents, the December 22 assault became known as Operation "Without Pity for Cite Soleil" and the noise of the 50-millimetre MINUSTAH machine guns could be heard echoing for miles.

Five days later, the people of Bois Neuf buried 11 young people that they say were among those killed by MINUSTAH. A huge crowd gathered in front of the caskets.

Ronald Saint-Jean of the Group for the Defence of the Rights of the Political Prisoners (GDP) was one of the few representatives of a human rights group to attend the funeral.

The GDP is part of a newly founded grassroots human rights coalition called the National Coordination of Organisations Defending Human Rights (CONODDH).

Following the overthrow of Haiti's elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide government, hundreds, possibly up to a thousand, Fanmi Lavalas political activists were imprisoned under the US backed interim government, according to a Miami University human rights study.

Another study published in the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that 8000 people had been killed and 35,000 sexually assaulted in the greater Port-au-Prince area during the time of the interim government (2004-2006). The second half of the study, presented in January at the American Public Health Association conference in Boston, identified 57% of the victims as Lavalas and 30% as belonging to Lespwa — the parties of Aristide and Preval.

The 2001-04 Aristide administration, financially embargoed by international financial institutions, had refused to privatise state enterprises. The embargo lost the government much needed aid, contributing to economic decline and destabilisation. Following Aristide's ouster, after members of Haiti's former military invaded from the Dominican Republic, an interim framework was set into motion under International Monetary Fund advisement.

According to some Haitian labour leaders, 8000-10,000 civil sectors workers, many from the poorest slums of Port-au-Prince, were laid off.

Other programs under the Aristide government, such as subsidised rice for the poor, literacy centres and water supply projects, came to a halt following the 2004 coup d'etat. A medical university, Haiti's first, that had been constructed by the Aristide government was taken over by MINUSTAH forces.

Frantz Michel Guerrier, a young man who is the spokesman of the Committee of Notables for the Development of Cite Soleil and based in the Bois Neuf zone, said: "It is very difficult for me to explain to you what the people of Bois Neuf went through on December 22, 2006 — almost unexplainable. It was a true massacre. We counted more than 60 wounded and more than 25 dead, among [them] infants, children and young people."

"We saw helicopters shoot at us, our houses broken by the tanks", Guerrier told IPS. "We heard detonations of the heavy weapons. Many of the dead and wounded were found inside their houses. I must tell you that nobody had been saved, not even the babies. The Red Cross was not allowed to help people. The soldiers had refused to let the Red Cross in categorically, in violation of the Geneva Convention."

The UN denies that it blocked ambulances from entering the slum, but acknowledges that a peacekeeper did shoot out an ambulance tire in Port-au-Prince that day. Multiple residents told IPS that MINUSTAH, after conducting its operations, evacuated without checking for wounded. UN sources say gang members shoot with small arms at their detachments.

Residents and Lavalas officials explain they oppose all violence and want peace. But sources close to the National Palace speak of immense pressure to toughen its stance on Cite Soleil to dislodge armed groups.

Opposition remains to MINUSTAH's military style tactics in the densely populated neighbourhoods remains strong. On February 7, the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, a huge march took place in Port-au-Prince with smaller demonstrations in Cap-Haitien, Saint-Marc, Miragoane, Jacmel, Leogane and Gonaives, all calling for an end to the violence and for Aristide to be allowed to return to the country.

[Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague are primary contributors to .]