By Clarens Renois
The giant shanty town of 300,000 people is dominated by armed gangs who support the deposed president Jean Bertrand Aristide and do not hesitate to use their weapons to back their campaign.
UN forces in their familiar blue helmets and Haitian police are trying to establish order in the maze of alleyways and broken down buildings that make up Bel Air. But it is hard work.
Peacekeepers with rifles sit on the roofs of the ruined homes, down onto guard posts surrounded by barbed wire and packed with sand bags.
The roads are empty, and there is no access into many that are littered with concrete blocks, burned out cars and other debris.
It is like a town under curfew. Children have not played in the streets since the gangs turned Bel Air into a no mans land. The Church of God which once drew hundreds of faithful is now a wreck with only a few walls standing.
Bel Air has become a battleground since Aristide fled the country in February, 2004 in the face of a popular rebellion. Hundreds of people have died in the Haitian capital in the past year, many of them in Bel Air, in criminal and political killings blamed on the gangs known as ‘chimeres’.
The insecurity has added to the burden of the transitional government in the impoverished Caribbean nation, that aims to hold municipal and national elections from October.
The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) estimates that there are about 20,000 illegal weapons in Port-au-Prince. But the peacekeepers insist they are striking decisive blows against their armed opponents in Bel Air.
“A lot of gangs have been broken up. I can assure you that they have suffered serious losses,” said Colonel El Ouafi Boulbars, a MINUSTAH spokesman.
“They are in a phase of complete disintegration. Today activities can start here again,” added the Moroccan officer.
The colonel praised the Brazilian troops who make up the backbone of the UN force of about 7,600 troops and international police and are dominant in the Bel Air force. “They are not afraid of danger, these are men of duty,” said the spokesman.
MINUSTAH announced Wednesday that seven people who had been kidnapped had been found and freed in the Bel Air shanty over the previous two weeks by Brazilian forces carrying out special operations. Eleven accused abductors were detained.
But the inhabitants who remain in Bel Air are not convinced.
Steve, who has a hairdresser’s salon, said he spends whole days without a client. “It has been like that for quite some time,” he said, while acknowledging that security has improved.
Jordanian police are on guard in the street and Sri Lankans are on duty further down. But even that does not bring the people out.
People from outside Bel Air dare not walk in the street at all, especially journalists who are particularly disliked by activists of the Lavalas party that supported Aristide.
Inhabitants say tensions rise when the Haitian national police (PNH) are on patrol.
“When they (the UN forces) are there it is calm,” said Daniel, a 23-year-old resident of Bel Air. “But when a PNH patrol goes by they leave at least one body behind.”
In another sign of the impact of the insecurity, the authorities have decided to extend the deadline for voters to register for the election from August 9 to September 15. More than 1.5 million people have registered for the cards which carry biometric details. But 4.5 million are estimated to be eligible to vote.