At the December 18th community meeting, Sason spoke to the youth, warning them of the dangerous consequences of using arms. He encouraged parents and elders to take responsibility for the youth and to dissuade them from resorting to arms and violence. Perhaps most surprisingly, he told residents that to come to a peaceful resolution, they will have to reach out to other neighborhoods in the zone, and that they would need to work with (perhaps even forgive) the gang “Lame Ti Manchet” (The Army of the Little Machete) as a sort of peace offering – an unsatisfactory but perhaps necessary step. Members of “Lame Ti Manchet” together with members of the Haitian National Police perpetrated a brutal massacre that claimed the lives of more than a dozen Gran Ravin residents on August 20-21, 2005.
Some individuals living in Gran Ravin who retain arms are resistant to the idea of giving them up and, thus far, have opposed the disarmament camp. According to Sason, some of these people want to retain weapons for community protection from further politically motivated attack from the police or anti-Lavalas groups like “Lame Ti Manchet”. Others, he says, retain weapons for criminal use, and there are those who maintain a firearm for personal protection as is allowed by law and that these people may disregard the disarmament plea. Nevertheless, according to lawyer Evel Fanfan, President of the Haitian human rights group AUMOHD (who also presented to the group), all of the residents in attendance December 18 were supportive of the general peace initiative being presented. Those at the meeting who have arms agreed to turn in their weapons with two conditions: 1. that AUMOHD facilitate the process instead of the UN whom several commented they didn’t trust in general or felt betrayed by in their previous involvement with the UN’s DDR (Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration) program and 2. that the other civilian armed groups in the area who could attack them agree to disarm as well.
Following the launch of the December 18th peace initiative, a potentially groundbreaking event took place. On January 6 with AUMOHD facilitating, representatives of three neighborhoods with rival armed groups: Gran Ravin, St. Bernadette and Lafwa met to discuss the proposal being put forward by AUMOHD and the group from Gran Ravin. “We discussed many points among which was the immediate necessity for everyone to lay down their weapons and to take the route of dialogue to resolve their differences,” said AUMOHD Pres. Evel Fanfan after the meeting. “The leaders present there were all in agreement that some invisible hands have been manipulating the groups to stir up violence in the poor neighborhoods. They were all in agreement to hold an emergency meeting with the [greater population of] St. Bernadette and Lafwa to discuss the direction [the group] had taken. At the end of the meeting they took a picture of the group as a sign of peace for the zone.” Following up on that success, on January 11, a “truce” was agreed to between representatives from Gran Ravin and the Descartes neighborhood, wherein they agreed to report any violent conflict that might arise between the three neighborhoods to AUMOHD for arbitration.
What is the context from which this peace initiative has been born? Part of it involves a reaction to repressive State violence. Residents still live under the shadow of a recent massacre perpetrated by members of the Haitian National Police together with armed civilians during the weekend of the “Play for Peace” soccer match on August 20-21 in which at least 15 (possibly as many as 50) people were killed. On August 20 at the soccer match, while the Police and their civilian attaches claimed to be looking for (and then viciously murdering) “bandi” (bandits or gang members), they also identified their victims as “Lavalas rat pa caca” (Lavalas scum). Several of the same policemen and civilians with machetes appeared in Gran Ravin the day after the soccer massacre apparently seeking Lavalas journalist Arens Laguerre. The journalist escaped, but the attackers proceeded to burn down his and several other houses identified as belonging to “rats” (Lavalas). Most of the victims that weekend were from Gran Ravin and Martissant, and several survivors and families of the deceased have taken their case to the courts and the press. Several witnesses and their lawyers have since received threats to drop their case, but they continue to press on.
The armed civilians who carried out the massacre call themselves “Lame Ti Manchet” (The Army of the Little Machete). The group is said to be made up of former prisoners freed from jails by the rebels who overthrew Aristide – and have since become decidedly anti-Lavalas. Several “Ti Manchet” attackers were identified by name in reports turned over to Police and the UN, but they were never arrested. Residents say they have returned to the area and have conducted several armed incursions into Gran Ravin since October. On October 26, a group entered and randomly fired on the central market of Gran Ravin injuring two. The witnesses could not see the attackers clearly in the dark, but several believed them to be from Lame Ti Manchet.
Fear of the police persists. In October and November residents complained of several illegal arrests by Police who claimed to be arresting “bandi” (bandits), the same label applied to those who were methodically hacked-to-death on August 20. On November 3, I accompanied AUMOHD to visit one of those illegally arrested by the HNP for alleged involvement with the “bandi”. She claimed to have been beaten in jail and showed us the large bruises on her legs and back to prove it. Under pressure from AUMOHD and another human rights lawyer, she was eventually freed without charge.
Of the approximately 50 police who participated in the soccer match massacre, 15 including 2 department heads have been arrested for their involvement following an internal investigation. Their cases have been turned over to the state prosecutor, but none have yet been brought to trial. The recently appointed Police Director Mario Andresol has been in meetings with AUMOHD over the legal case against the police involved in the massacre and more recently to discuss the Gran Ravin peace plan. Mr. Fanfan says that Mr. Andresol has verbally committed to restricting police activity in the zone while the peace process is given the opportunity to succeed.
Mr. Fanfan has pointed out that as long as the people have or are perceived to have weapons, even if for self-defense, and especially if they are Lavalas, the Police and MINUSTAH can continue to label them “bandi” and identified as such, they are always under the threat of being arrested, imprisoned or worse. Now, with increasingly strident demands from the Haitian business community and elsewhere for MINUSTAH to “crack down” on “gang-ridden” communities, there is a genuine fear that the Gran Ravin/ Martissant area will be lumped into this category, and that the peace initiative will be overshadowed and overlooked by the drive towards an amped-up UN “get tough” policy that could let loose deadly UN raids on their community. Raids, according to MINUSTAH chief Juan Gabriel Valdes, where the “collateral damage” of civilians killed by UN “peacekeepers” has now become an acceptable consequence.
Maintaining arms for self-defense might seem a reasonable, even logical response under such threatening conditions. Some of those leading the non-violence initiative once accepted this, but have changed course in deciding that de-escalation and non-violent reconciliation has become necessary road towards the peace that they desire. Their success in bringing together former rival groups into an apparent truce with plans for disengagement is a hopeful sign that this could work. AUMOHD has announced that it will attempt similar community meetings in the nearby neighborhoods of Ti Bwa and Sore – both are supposed to have armed groups rival to Gran Ravin. Perhaps these communities will feel similarly. The “Gran Ravin Initiative” hopes that these adjoining populations and the armed individuals in their ranks will realize that they have more in common with their neighbors than in conflict, that resorting to arms or violence has not improved their collective situation, and that working together they can create positive change in their lives.