On Friday, November 18, 1803, the decisive battle of the Haitian revolution was fought at Vertières, just outside the northern city of Cap Français. There, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the revolutionary army of former slaves to rout Napoleon’s crack French colonial legions.
Two hundred and three years later, Haitians are again trying to drive out foreign occupation troops, today mostly drawn from an assortment of neo-colonies fighting under the United Nations’ flag.
On Friday, November 17, 2006, a major and symbolic confrontation of this struggle unfolded in the dusty, bullet-riddled slum of Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s largest.
A demonstration commemorating the Battle of Vertières was planned for 10 a.m. by Cité Soleil residents. But, beginning in the early morning hours, troops of the U.N. Mission to Stabilize Haiti or MINUSTAH surrounded the slum, peppering it with gunfire to intimidate the demonstrators.
"I arrived at the Cité Soleil market in a Haïti Progrès vehicle–clearly marked as press–with three colleagues at about 10 a.m.," explained Berthony Dupont who wrote a moving eye-witness account of the attack in this week’s edition of the newspaper, Haïti Progrès. "Immediately, we heard bursts of automatic gunfire, and several U.N. armored vehicles pulled in front of our car, shooting wildly into houses and alleys of the slum. The residents responded with rocks and small-arms fire. The scene reminded me of the televised reports I have seen from the war in Iraq, or even more so, of Israeli attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank."
The U.N. tanks crashed through a marketplace, destroying small merchants’ stalls, Dupont said. He saw a bleeding, wounded market woman whom a UN soldier had shot in the back. Residents told the journalists that the UN troops had shot and killed a child in the Bois-Neuf neighborhood several blocks away.
"I found tears of anger and shame streaming down my face as I impotently watched this scene unfold," Dupont said. "I understood then and there that the people of Cité Soleil are in a state of war with the MINUSTAH and cannot under any circumstances lay down their weapons as the government and UN are asking. That would be suicide."
Despite the machine-gunfire coming from the U.N. tanks, the journalists managed to weave their way into Cité Soleil and interview some of the residents. "I’ve already lost a sister and a brother to the MINUSTAH’s bullets," a man in his twenties explained. "That’s why I want the MINUSTAH to leave Haiti immediately."
Some 6,700 U.N. troops and 1,600 U.N. police are deployed throughout Haiti under a Security Council mandate that lasts until February 15, 2007. In June 2004, the MINUSTAH replaced the U.S., French and Canadian troops which invaded and occupied Haiti after U.S. Special Forces soldiers kidnaped President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from his home on February 29, 2004 and flew him into exile.
President René Préval’s government has invited the MINUSTAH to stay in Haiti indefinitely, claiming the 5,300-member Haitian police force cannot maintain order in Haiti. The U.S. Embassy is also pushing for a long-term occupation, portraying Haiti as a state "at risk" of failure. But many Haitians, particularly those in Cité Soleil, respond that the MINUSTAH only creates instability and enforces injustice.
"We spent two years fighting against the de facto government of [Prime Minister Gérard] Latortue and [President Alexandre] Boniface," said a thin man in his thirties. "Now we have elected someone [Préval] to power, but we are ashamed of his conduct."
The MINUSTAH’s base in Cité Soleil is a three-story cinder block building whose doors and windows are completely filled with sandbags. Soldiers dash from the hatches of UN tanks to the safety of the base as if they are under attack rather than attacking.
The base dominates Cité Soleil’s principal market place, which has been cleared of all commerce. It was renovated only three years ago by President Aristide. One of the residents’ principal demands is return of the marketplace to the small merchants, who are now forced to hawk amid the dust, garbage and exhaust fumes of the slum’s roadsides.
By around noon, skirmishing had died down enough that word went out for the demonstration to start. Rara bands from three different neighborhoods began playing and marching simultaneously. One passed in front of the MINUSTAH base. Then all three converged with over 1000 demonstrators to march through the streets of the cordoned-off slum.
"Today, on the eve of the anniversary of Vertières, we remember the example of our ancestors who struggled for independence," said Jean-Paul (whose last name is withheld for security reasons), a young popular organization leader in Cité Soleil. "We want to demand our rights, express our discontent with how the foreigners are abusing us. They kill old people and children. They destroy homes, schools, hospitals and churches. They destroy everything. We are demanding that they return our territory to us."
During the interview, automatic weapon fire from the five U.N. tanks in the near-by intersection continued to crackle.
"We are ready to die," Jean-Paul continued. "We call on Jean-Jacques Dessalines to rise, Capois Lamort to rise, Toussaint Louverture to rise from wherever they are to return to Haiti and help us continue this fight so that Haiti can emerge from this situation. We are supposedly independent, but we are not free! We are not independent! Can we Haitians allow the foreigners to bury us? Never! Never!"
As demonstrators poured into the streets for the demonstration, they carried portraits of Aristide, still exiled in South Africa, and chanted slogans: "No matter what, MINUSTAH must leave!"
Other portraits seen on walls around Cité Soleil are of Emmanuel "Dred" Wilmer, a local popular leader killed along with dozens of other slum residents in a murderous MINUSTAH raid on July 6, 2005, and of Che Guevara.
Residents said that people from other rebellious shanty towns like Belair were now moving to Cité Soleil where they feel there is enough organization and will to fight the occupation. In this way, Cité Soleil has become liberated territory, the crucible for resistance in Haiti.
And the movement is spreading. On Saturday, November 18, a few hundred students marched in downtown Port-au-Prince, also calling for an end to the U.N. occupation. Many students, infiltrated and influenced by Haiti’s bourgeoisie, remain hostile to Aristide and oblivious that their 2004 demonstrations provided a pretext for Haiti’s most recent occupation. Nonetheless, as Haiti’s latest occupation approaches the end of its third year, it is engendering frustration and humiliation even among pro-coup sectors.
"We should go find Dessalines’ bones then grind them up and sprinkle them on us to give us strength to struggle against these scoundrels," Jean-Paul said. "We can’t continue like this."
KIM IVES, until recently a writer and editor at Haïti Progrès, is now an independent investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker with a focus on Haiti.