‘Play for Peace’ Soccer Match Turns Into Massacre
BY REED LINDSAY
August 28, 2005
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The crowd applauded when camouflaged and black-hooded police officers entered a packed soccer match in the hillside slum of Martissant on Saturday afternoon a week ago. They assumed the officers were there to provide security.
Suddenly, the officers ordered the 6,000 spectators to the ground of the walled, dirt field. Gunshots rang out and people began to run for the only exit. Police began firing wantonly, witnesses said, and outside, civilians armed with machetes and more police officers attacked those trying to flee the chaos.
Some people were shot and killed by police, according to witnesses and family members; others were hacked to pieces by the machete-wielding civilians.
The “Play for Peace” soccer match, financed and sponsored by USAID, an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance in support of U.S. foreign policy goals, was to help plan for disarmament by steering young people away from gang violence. Instead, it became a scene of mayhem in a country rife with human rights and criminal abuses.
‘They came to massacre us’
The killings came less than a month after two other, similarly grisly machete attacks that also appeared to take place with police complicity. The incidents, all in poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince considered bastions of support for exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have fueled fears in this nation with a history of such violence of state-sponsored terror before national elections in November.
“They came to massacre us,” said Nesly Devla, 20, showing a three-inch, stitched-together gash on his forehead and another on his hand from a machete. “Everyone was on top of each other. There was nowhere to run. God saved me.”
Anne Sosin, a human rights observer at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said she had confirmed the deaths of at least eight people and said all the deaths may not have been reported yet. Police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou said six bodies were brought to the morgue but declined to talk further about the incident except to say police would be investigating.
The killings have drawn increased scrutiny of a nearly 15-month-old United Nations peacekeeping mission that critics say has done little to curb human rights abuses or provide incentives for gangs to disarm.
“These killings set a dangerous precedent,” Sosin said. “How can you explain police accompanied by individuals armed with machetes massacring spectators at a soccer match with UN troops standing by literally across the street? This event needs to serve as a wake-up call for the international community, which for more than a year has failed to respond to grave violations of human rights in Haiti.”
The United Nations has a permanent station across from the soccer field, but it is unclear if officers were there that day. UN human rights officials say they are investigating the killings.
Since taking power after Aristide was escorted from the country by U.S. soldiers amid an armed revolt in February 2004, the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has spurned dialogue with the former president’s supporters. Leaders of Aristide’s Lavalas party have been imprisoned without being formally charged or brought before a judge, and the police force has carried out brutal crackdowns in Port-au-Prince’s slum areas.
A setback for communities
Meanwhile, armed Aristide supporters, in addition to armed groups of other political affiliations and non-political criminal gangs, have clashed with police and UN peacekeepers and carried out a wave of kidnappings and other crimes in the capital.
The poor, as is often the case in the hemisphere’s most destitute nation, has suffered the brunt of the violence. The recent machete killings have been portrayed by UN and government officials as a reaction from angry residents who have resorted to spontaneous vigilante justice after becoming fed up with gang violence.
“We are worried about the cases of lynchings in recent weeks,” said Jean-Francois Vezina, Canadian spokesman for the UN Civilian Police, which is mandated with training and monitoring its Haitian counterpart but was absent the day of the Martissant killings.
Witnesses at the soccer match say the killings there were neither spontaneous nor carried out with popular support. They say they recognized some of the machete-wielding civilians as criminals who had been driven out of the adjacent neighborhood of Grand Ravine by residents and are now working as “attaches,” or paid police informants and assassins.
“According to the people we work with in the community, this was not popular justice. They are saying this was a planned aggression, an attack to destabilize the community,” said Philippe Branchat, an employee of the International Organization for Migration who manages the Haiti Transition Initiative, the USAID-program that sponsored the soccer game.
Branchat said the killings represent a setback in efforts to gain the trust of gang members and ordinary residents of Martissant and Grand Ravine, which is a crucial first step toward disarmament. He said unlike other slum areas in the capital, these neighborhoods have been relatively free from violence since November.
“We’re not involved in violence and disorder. We don’t shoot at police, we don’t kidnap people, we don’t rape women … This is a very peaceful area,” said Luckner Innocent, a Grand Ravine resident who went to the soccer match with his nephew Wasnay Alcidas, 21, and found him at the morgue two days later.
Innocent said he saw police shooting in Alcidas’ direction and then didn’t see his nephew again until he viewed the body — shot six times in the stomach and hacked with a machete.
“The police were working in concert with the same guys doing kidnapping, terrorizing people, raping women. Those are the ones [with the machetes],” he said.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.