Nearly two months since U.N. 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 Cité Soleil told IPS that an assault earlier this month left his only two children dead. “It is the noise of MINUSTAH’s (the U.N. peacekeeping force) fire that awoke us.”
It was about 11 p.m. on Feb. 1, he said, and the family was sleeping on the floor because U.N. 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, 7, and Alexandra Lubin, 4. A top MINUSTAH military commander acknowledges the U.N. fired shots that day. Residents also state that U.N. 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 René Préval government.
Speaking at a press conference at U.N. headquarters Wednesday, 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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.
U.N. 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 Cité Soleil were pockmarked by bullets; many showing huge holes made by heavy calibre U.N. weapons, as residents attest. Often pipes that brought in water to the slum community now lay shattered.
A recently declassified document from the U.S. 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 Cité 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 Cité Soleil, the Haitian Nonviolent, Nonpartisan Coalition (HNVNPC), is attempting to revive a peace process. A spokesman for the group, Evel Fanfan, declared we were “forged out of the desperation of victims and leaders in the battlefields of Cité Soleil” and call “immediately for a ceasefire”.
The group is attempting to work with the Préval government’s National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reinsertion, headed up by Alix Fils Aimé, to renew the possibility for a peace process. Already one armed group has offered to turn in their weapons for amnesty and government investment in the community.
A hardened U.N. strategy became apparent just days before Christmas, when U.N. officials stated they were entering Cité Soleil to capture or kill gangsters and kidnappers in the Bois Neuf zone.
According to some residents, the Dec. 22 assault became known as Operation “Without Pity for Cité Soleil” as the noise of the 50-mm 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 U.S. backed interim government, according to a Miami University Human rights study.
Another study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, estimated that 8,000 had been killed and 35,000 sexually assaulted in the greater Port-au-Prince area during the time of the interim government (2004-2006). In the second half of the study presented in January at the American Public Health Association conference in Boston, the study identified 57 percent of the victims as Lavalas and 30 percent as belonging to Lespwa — the parties of Aristide and Preval.
The Aristide administration (2001-2004), 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, it laid off between eight and ten thousand civil sector workers, many from the poorest slums of Port-au-Prince.
Other programmes 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, a first of its kind for Haiti, 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 Cité 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 Dec. 22, 2006 — almost unexplainable. It was a true massacre. We counted more than sixty 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 U.N. 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. U.N. 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 Cité Soleil to dislodge armed groups.
Opposition remains strong against MINUSTAH’s military style tactics in the densely populated neighbourhoods. On Feb. 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-Haïtien, Saint-Marc, Miragoâne, Jacmel, Léogâne and Gonaïves, all calling for an end to the violence and that Aristide be allowed to return to the country.