Antonine Bienaimé was doing what she does every day, selling single candies, cigarettes, cookies and crackers from trays she sets up in front of her home that doubles as a shop. The mother of eight was working into the evening of August 7, trying to earn enough goudes to feed her family and buy something to sell the next day, when a group of blue-helmeted Brazilian soldiers in an armored personnel carrier rumbled down the narrow unpaved street, kicking up dust and ordering her inside.
These stern-faced foreigners with rifles on the ready are part of the 9,000-person U.N. “peacekeeping” forces, better known by the acronym MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
These men with guns are a common sight in Cité Soleil, the sprawling, impoverished shantytown of about 300,000 people Bienaimé calls home.
The soldiers didn’t give Bienaimé time to gather her trays.
“On my way to get inside, I said ‘give me one second,’ because I was right in front of my house and it’s not like I was doing something bad. And then he sprayed the teargas right on my face.” Bienaimé said speaking in Creole through an interpreter in an interview in her home/store a week after the incident.
MINUSTAH arrived in Haiti in June 2004 with some 6,700 troops to replace U.S. Marines, who were brought in as an American plane flew Haiti’s elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide to involuntary exile Feb. 29 2004. (Aristide says the U.S. forced him from office in a coup d’état; the State Department says Aristide opted to leave.)
With Aristide out of the way, the U.S., with support from France and Canada, set up an unelected government, appointing Gérard Latortue, a Haitian-born man living in Florida, as prime minister.
France, Canada and the U.S. finally allowed Haitian elections in February 2006. René Préval was sworn in as president in May. In his inaugural speech, Préval acknowledged the need for a new role for the U.N. peacekeepers, accused of bloody incursions into poor neighborhoods in which allies of Aristide and his Lavalas movement, described as criminals, were killed or carted off to jail in massive sweeps.
“MINUSTAH will continue to accompany the Haitian people,” Préval said. “but this time we will ask it to help us with more tractors, bulldozers, loaders, trucks to build roads, to make canals to water our lands. These are the materials that are necessary today to stabilize the country. There is no longer any need for tanks.”
This did not come to pass.
In a mid-August interview at MINUSTAH headquarters in Port-au-Prince, spokesperson Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, said military intervention was needed to address criminal gangs.
“President Préval tried peaceful negotiations with the gangs” and when that did not work, approved an intensive three-month “operation” to route out gang members beginning Dec. 21, 2006 in Cité Soleil, she said. “Préval said to MINUSTAH, ‘you have the green light.’”
The day after Préval gave his blessing to the operation, U.N. peacekeepers went into Cité Soleil looking for “bandits,” killed some 20 people and wounded dozens more.
In “Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment,” Peter Hallward tells the story this way: “The crackdown began in earnest on 22 December 2006, when under heavy international pressure Préval reluctantly gave the nod for a full-scale U.N. assault on the Cité that missed all of its intended targets but left around 20 innocents dead.”
Reuter’s reported Dec. 22 2006: “About 400 U.N. soldiers in armored vehicles, backed by Haitian police forces, stormed… Cite Soleil in a move to dislodge heavily armed gang members…. A Reuters photographer counted nine bodies from the clashes that ensued and eyewitnesses counted four others dead. As many as 30 people were wounded, humanitarian aid workers said. All of the casualties were believed to be civilians.”
De la Combe denied U.N. soldiers ever killed innocent people. U.N. rules mandate that peacekeepers identify who is firing before gunfire is returned, she said, adding, “Gangs protect themselves with women and children.”
No one was reported killed by the MINUSTAH troops on the day Bienaimé was sprayed and a stray peacekeeper bullet found its way through Barthelmy Guerta’s tin roof nearby. Open warfare on the people of Cité Soleil has apparently been replaced by a more subtle occupation.
Bienaimé described the incident. “My eyes were searing and my children got diarrhea and some vomited and I got inside my store and I was crying ‘help’ but the U.N. soldiers were passing by and kicked the gate to my store with their boots,” she said, pointing to the redness that remained in her eyes. “My eyes are still sore and I cannot see very well.”
Bienaimé said she thought if she had stayed on the street, the soldiers would have beat her up. She was astonished that they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that she was at work when they sprayed her.
“This is what I do to take care of my family. It’s the profit I use to pay for education and everything,” she explained as she sold a customer a single cigarette.
What sparked the incident?
“It was a little bit at night and at the intersection where the soldiers were beating up some of the young guys,” she said, pointing down the street. “ Maybe they didn’t want me to see this, so that’s why they asked me to get inside.”
The soldiers rough behavior didn’t surprise Bienaimé. “This happens every single day. Everyone is a victim of the U.N.,” she said.
Neighborhood leader and journalist Jean Ristil said he thought the incident was related to another, the previous day, when U.N. soldiers beat two Haitian police officers in Cité Soleil. The officers, out of uniform, refused to follow a MINUSTAH order to identify themselves and the soldiers beat the policemen badly enough to send them to the hospital, Ristil said.
De la Combe said in the August interview that the incident was under investigation. She did not respond to follow-up queries asking for investigation findings.
Ristil said that youth, standing up for the beaten Haitian police, threw stones at Brazilian soldiers. The soldiers reacted by beating the youth, spraying tear gas and shooting up the neighborhood, Ristil said.
Despite her anger, Bienaimé said she’s not among those calling for MINUSTAH to leave. She credits MINUSTAH for ending the gang violence in recent years.
“There are still things going on [i.e., gang violence], but it’s nothing like four years ago. Before, it was a very bad situation. I couldn’t sleep in my house because there was always shooting going on somewhere. I almost lost my daughter in the middle of crossfire, and I had to stay for three years in someone else’s house. I’m not saying the U.N. has to leave the country. I can tell they really help. but I still think the U.N. needs to respect people,” she said.
“The U.N. soldiers keep beating up the young kids in the neighborhood, pretending they are thugs, but most of the thugs went into hiding,” Bienaimé continued. “You could just arrest them if you think they are thugs instead of beating them. They hit the youth with their weapons. They kick them with their boots and sometimes slap them in their faces.”
Bienaimé did not go to the United Nations with a formal complaint on the spray incident. “I don’t know of a place I could go to protest,” she said. “So I cried a lot that night and was just yelling so people could gather to see what I received from the U.N. soldiers.”
Around the corner, Barthelmy Guerta was victimized by U.N. soldiers the same evening. In an interview in her one-room home, she said she was awakened by what she believed to be MINUSTAH shooting in the neighborhood from weapons mounted on their armored personnel carriers. A bullet went through the tin roof, causing a piece to detach and graze her baby daughter’s face.
The incident left Guerta shaken. Now she stays home during the day and goes with her children to a friend’s house at night. “I’m still afraid to sleep here,” she said.
The young mother attempted to make a complaint. “I went to the U.N. but they didn’t understand me,” she said. So she talked to the Haitian police, who told her to get a judge to verify the incident. “But the judge asked for money to come and I couldn’t do it,” she said. “So I just left it.”
De la Combe said the United Nations welcomes complaints and said a form is posted on the MINUSTAH web site; this reporter was unable to find such a posting either on the MINUSTAH or the U.N. web sties. (Few Haitians have computers and about half the population is illiterate.)
Unlike Bienaimé, Guerta insisted the U.N. troops should leave.
“The way the U.N. treats Haitians is as if they are not human beings,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to deal with people who don’t respect you. If I died from this, no one would care, the same way no one cares about this incident. I believe MINUSTAH should leave, because they are not really helping.”
Jean Marie Samedi, a grassroots Lavalas leader, was interviewed in a sheltered outdoors meeting place at the Aristide Foundation during a pounding rain storm, just two weeks before the series of hurricanes that devastated cities and rural areas north of Port-au-Prince.
Since they arrived, MINUSTAH, whose 2008-2009 budget is $575 million, has “helped all the enemies,” Samedi said. “They have killed, raped, ransacked” the shantytowns.
Some 108 U.N. soldiers from Sri Lanka were sent home in November 2007 to face charges of sexual misconduct including abuse of minors. De la Combe said sexual misconduct has since stopped, although several Haitians disagreed, telling this reporter that U.N. soldiers continue to pay hungry boys and girls as young as 12 years old for sex. This could not be independently verified.
“Now the grassroots of Lavalas is calling for the U.N. to leave,” Samedi said, adding, however, that if they stay, they need to change their mission.
The grassroots Lavalas movement is urging Préval to renew his call of May 18 2006 and insist that MINUSTAH not be a force of destruction, Samedi said.
“They need to be about providing tractors to help plow the fields.”
JUDITH SCHERR can be reached at: email@example.com