February 12, 2007
A Journey Through the World’s Most Miserable Slum
What Next for Haiti’s Cite Soleil?
By Dr. JOHN CARROLL, MD
On February 7 I looked over the balcony rail from the second floor of our clinic in Cite Soleil. Five UN (MINUSTAH) tanks were patrolling the streets directly below us and passing by slowly in single file. Their guns were not aimed at the clinic like usual as I took their picture. A TV cameraman from Channel 4 in London took a long video of them as they passed and waved.
Despite the friendly waves, two days later, in the early morning hours, 700 UN forces, mainly Brazilian, entered the slum and had a fierce gun battle with a gang in the Boston region of Cite Soleil. The shooting lasted for hours. All the main roads into the Soleil were blocked by tanks. People were allowed out on foot and were not allowed to return until late afternoon when the shooting had stopped.
The UN was successful in destroying a prominent gang leaders base in an area of Soleil known as Boston but was unsuccessful in capturing or killing him. Apparently one civilian was killed and two UN soldiers were injured.
The gangs in Soleil shot thousands of rounds of ammunition at the UN. The gangs have M-14’s, 9 mm weapons, 38’s, American-style machine guns, and hand grenades. I have seen these weapons up close and personal and they appear even more menacing in the hands of shirtless, 19-year-old young men, who are hungry and on the run-being hunted by UN forces. The UN tanks have 50 mm machine guns and on Friday they had a remote control airplane circling Soleil.
Cite Soleil is considered one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the world. The UN has peacekeeping forces in many parts of the world, but from what I understand, Haiti is the only country where the UN has a peace keeping mission which has taken on heavily armed gangs.
The shooting and war that is occurring in Soleil now is horrific. Hundreds of thousands of people are trapped inside this slum paying homage to the gangs and their soldiers or are running from the bullets from the MINUSTAH tanks and automatic weapons. However, the violence hurts the people of Soleil in so many other ways than just death and injury from bullets.
Father Tom Hagan has a program here in Haiti called Hands Together. Father Tom has eight schools in Soleil, a medical clinic, and feeds 10,000 children each day in this massive slum.
On Friday, he was unable to enter Soleil in a vehicle and so he walked in and was able to free up food for eight thousand people from his two main feeding centers. A radio station in Cite Soleil made announcements that food would be given out as usual to his students in those two areas.
One of Father Tom’s centers is in the Bois Neuf area of Soleil. After freeing this food, Father walked down the middle of the main road in Soleil, saying the rosary, and opened his other feeding center at Soleil 24. There was no traffic except UN tanks. Forty UN tanks were inside and outside of Soleil at that point.
Father’s schools were closed because his teachers could not get in the slum. And with the shooting, parents were afraid to send their kids to school. It says quite a bit when Haitian parents are too frightened to send their kids to school because that means no education and probably very little food that day for their children.
People delivering food into Soleil were not allowed in on February 7, and so the women who sell in the main market had nothing to sell even if they could have during the barrage of bullets. This weekend, there has been very little food for hundreds of thousands of people.
In an area of Soleil called the Wharf, The Daughters of Charity have six sisters who do incredible work. They have a medical clinic that sees several hundred children a day for acute medical problems. They also have a pediatric vaccination program and a malnutrition program for 50 very malnourished babies. They provide two hot meals for these babies Monday through Friday. While the babies are napping, their mothers participate in a well-organized sewing program, designed to teach them a skill.
The sisters also have a school in Soleil near the clinic that has 600 students. Each day the sisters provide 1,200 hot meals for the kids in their schools and programs.
None of this happened on Friday. The medical clinic was closed. The school was closed. The malnutrition program was closed. Nobody got fed. And most of these people had no food in their homes this weekend either.
One of the sisters had a scheduled vacation to her home country in South America and had to walk out of the slum with her suitcase in her hand amid the gun fire. She was picked up outside the slum by a driver who took her to the airport.
A friend of ours who runs an orphanage four miles from Soleil was besieged by twenty women from Soleil who had snuck out of the slum with their babies asking her to take their kids, feed them, clean them, and put them up for adoption. Our friend had to deny their requests because she already has over 100 children in the orphanage and absolutely no where to put these kids or give them adequate care. They all had to return to Soleil.
Today, Sunday, Father Tom picked me up and we went to Soleil in his jeep. He says mass on Sunday mornings at Saint Ann’s which is in the back part of Soleil called Soleil 17.
We easily entered Soleil from route National One. There were no UN tanks blocking the entrance.
The main street in Soleil seemed quiet with fewer people. However, the machan-women street merchants-were selling at their market near Bois Neuf. However, it did not appear that there was much food to sell.
We went down Soleil 1 and turned left on Soleil 17. We saw no MINUSTAH tanks or our way to church. St Ann’s is one block down the street on the right. The church is a large structure on a corner. There were no other cars around and gang members from that area sat on the corner and wandered in and out of church. Every one seemed unconcerned.
The altar in the church is simple but there is a beautiful crucified Black Jesus on the cross painted on the wall behind the altar. Red blood pours from his hands and the wound on his right side. There were about 150 people at mass, mostly children and elderly ladies.
After Mass, I spoke with the local gang leader and his soldiers and, they all claimed they were hungry and the thousands of people they control are hungry. They also think that if they lay down their arms, MINUSTAH will arrest them, turn them over to the Haitian National Police, and they will be tortured and die in the Haitian Penitentary.
The look on their faces is hard, cold, and scared. I asked them what they thought MINUSTAH was going to do next, and the gang leader shrugged his shoulders, looked at the ground, and said he didn’t know.
Father Tom hopes to be able to bring in dry food into Soleil tomorrow, which will be bags of rice and beans, and distribute it with the help of the gang soldiers.
Father Tom and I then walked through the slum. While we were on a paved road, two UN tanks quietly came down the street. The soldiers waved at us. Their guns were not pointed at the homes or people or us. The tranquility had to be appreciated by the worn out population of Soleil.
We walked into the back neighborhoods where we were surrounded by children and one gang member continued to walk with us. A lady approached and asked me if I would examine her daughter.
I turned around and walked back with her and stepped into her shack. Lying on a bed was her 19 year old daughter who was shot in the back, abdomen, and left arm by MINUSTAH on December 27 as she sat outside her shanty. She was hospitalized at St. Catherine’s, a small hospital in Soleil, where she underwent abdominal surgery and was hospitalized for 8 days.
She was lying on a small bed with perspiration covering her forehead in this hellhole. She complained of abdominal pain and said she is not able to eat. Her surgical dressing is still in place and she said she has an appointment tomorrow at St. Catherine’s.
Her 3 month old baby girl was lying at her feet. The baby had not had milk in four days because she says she has no breast milk and they have no powdered milk in the one room shack which serves as their home. I saw the empty tin can of Alaska powdered milk next to her bed. They have been giving the baby some boiled water and mashed up cookies in water. The baby seemed fairly content under the circumstances.
I told the 19 year old mom and her mother that I would find the baby some powdered milk and bring it to them.
Father and I continued on and arrived in the Boston section of Cite Soleil and then crossed over to another district of Soleil called Beleco. I went over and talked to a Beleco gang of soldiers. They immediately asked me what I was going to do for them. They were armed and are the soldiers of the escaped gang leader Evans who is hiding in the slum. They said they are hungry also.
People are loyal to Evans. Even though he kills and extorts money, he still feeds thousands of people. He is hidden among them now and no one will say where he is. His name isn’t even mentioned. However, the people of the slum fear him and his soldiers less than they do MINUSTAH which shoot to kill from their big white tanks that pass through their neighborhoods.
While I was talking to the soldiers of Evans’ gang, a 40 year old lady with a low voice asked me if I would check her mother, who was very sick. As I was walking to her shack in the maze that never seems to end in Soleil, I stumbled onto a lady selling te (earth) which are circular 5 inch diameter pies made of mud with butter and salt mixed in. They are baked in the sun. They are made right in the slum to stem people’s hunger. They offered me one which I declined. A pretty 20 year old girl took a big bite of one of these toxic patties, chewed it up and swallowed it while she smiled at me.
I followed the lady with the sick mother and arrived at their shack about 30 yards from the road.. Her 62 year old mother lay on the floor next to a bed lying on her right side. She was covered with flies and groaning softly. Her family obviously could not give her any significant care. They said she was not eating and could not stand.
When I examined her on the floor, she was lethargic and had a hard mass in her abdomen that seemed to be originating from her liver. The family showed me some worthless medication she was taking.
The family carried her to Father Tom’s vehicle and we loaded her in back. As we left Soleil, the gang members from Boston waved and smiled as they walked down the road. We took her to a home for dying and abandoned adults run by the Missionaries of Charity in a different part of PAP. This Sisters graciously accepted her and her death will be easier now than it would been on her floor in Soleil.
So what to do—-
This is all a dynamic, tricky business. The focus is on the gangs and their soldiers and the UN soldiers. However, these two fighting factions represent only a miniscule of the people affected. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives and well being are at stake now. What will this week bring? There is no tomorrow for Soleil unless sound and beneficent decisions are made within the next few days.
The UN should bring in massive amounts or rice and beans and start feeding the starving people of Cite Soleil. tomorrow morning (Monday).They should do all they can to provide clean water. They should build roads and create a sewer system for Soleil.
MINUSTAH should stop their indiscriminate shooting in densely packed neighborhoods of innocent people. They need to get down off their tanks and walk into the maze of poverty with real human beings living inside.
MASH-type medical clinics need to be set up by MINUSTAH, which could take care of the vast majority of medical problems found in the slum now.
Where is the Catholic Church? Catholic leaders from Haiti and all over the Americas need to come here, walk through Soleil and visit the people. They need to have meetings with MINUSTAH and the gang leaders. The Church needs to promote meaningful dialogue and change now for the poor that are begging for their help.
Will the people continue to starve as they offer their babies up for adoption or will meaningful dialogue occur? If people don’t start talking tomorrow morning in Haiti’s slum and agree to stop all of the violence, the despair and death in Soleil hasn’t even started.
Dr. John Carroll, an American doctor who works in some of the most oppressed areas of Haiti, can be reached through the DyinginHaiti website