Haiti‘s children die in UN crossfire
Mourning parents blame the peace force for the ‘collateral’ deaths in a battle to rid the slums of gangs, reports Sandra Jordan in Port-au-Prince
Sunday April 1, 2007
Rue de l’Interrement, or Burial Street, is a thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince that makes a living from death. Coffins lean against the shop fronts. Every store is a funeral parlour or morgue priv�e. Refrigerating bodies is good business in a violent capital city.
In one of the mortuaries Dario Germain held his son, Berhens. The handsome and wiry nine-year-old looked tiny on the marble slab. The father lifted the boy’s head to show where the bullet had entered two days ago – the only mark was a slit on the top of his skull.
Germain claims his son was killed by peacekeepers from the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah). ‘Les blancs’ – the foreigners – had been patrolling the street in three armoured personnel carriers (APCs), he said.
On the rooftop of his house in Cite Soleil, the largest slum in Haiti, home to a quarter of a million people, Germain points to a smear of Berhens’s blood. ‘It was around 10.30 in the morning. After he fed the chickens he sat on this ledge to play with a toy phone. A shot rang out and Berhens fell.’
A pink plastic mobile phone lay next to a drying pool of blood.
Cite Soleil is renowned for gang violence. And now armed criminal groups who once waged war against each other – killing any innocent who happened to be in the way – have joined forces to ‘resist’ the UN peacekeepers. But the family and neighbours claim there had been no gang shootings that morning.
‘We want justice for Berhens,’ said Ville, holding up a piece of cardboard. Scrawled on it were the numbers 21119, 21110, and 21121 – the numbers of the three APCs near by at the time of the shooting.
After Berhens was hit, the armoured vehicles parked outside the Germain house for about ten minutes. A neighbour went to the peacekeepers – he thinks they were Brazilian. ‘I told them, you have just shot a child,’ he said. ‘They replied: “He was holding a gun”.’
Three years ago President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by an armed uprising and Haiti slid into chaos. Since then, there have been no police or any kind of state presence in Cite Soleil. Locals live amid armed gangs who buy automatic weapons with the proceeds of extortion, kidnapping, armed robbery and drug trafficking. After Aristide left, the UN mission was set up to help establish peace in the impoverished Caribbean country.
Brazilian General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was appointed force commander of Minustah in January. He is determined to do away with the gangs and restore services. ‘You cannot give in to criminals,’ he said. ‘They kidnap, traffick drugs, rape, torture and kill people.’ As The Observer accompanied the general to a UN base at the start of a massive anti-gang crackdown, gang members opened fire on the UN position.
‘The difference between us and the gangs,’ said General Dos Santos Cruz, ‘is that we have rules of engagement. They shoot women and children, we don’t.’
As pressure on the gangs intensified, so, too, did the gang counterfire – and with it, civilian ‘collateral damage’.
Cite Soleil’s gang leaders are known as Amaral, Belony and Evens. ‘Vicious bastards,’ said one UN senior official. ‘No one would stay here if they had the money to get out,’ said Dario Germain, Berhens’s father. His friend Ville nodded. Both men live a hand to mouth existence, scavenging scrap metal to sell to stove makers. ‘We are terrified by the gangs,’ said Germain. ‘But because they have guns in their hands and we live among them, we are forced to applaud and say “bravo” for them.’
A neighbour, Rosemary, like many thousands of Haitian women, was brutally raped by gang members. Her husband, daughter and son were killed in gang infighting. She thinks it would be a good thing for the UN to eliminate the gangs.
‘But I judge Minustah because they shoot at the gangs with powerful weapons and the people are physically on the side of the gangs,’ she said.
First you heard wailing – the crying and praying was like music. ‘Ti Moun,’ they cried, meaning child in Creole.
Two little girls lay dead on the floor of the wooden house. Stefanie’s face was undamaged but there was a huge gash in her arm. An exit wound. There was another gunshot wound in her chest. She was four years old. Alexandra’s nose and forehead were a mess of red. The bullet had entered the back of her skull. She was six.
Flies buzzed around the bodies of the daughters of Mercius Lubin and Marie Daniel Remy. Lubin had been shot in the arm, blood seeped through his bandage. ‘Madame is in hospital,’ he said, ‘her leg has been shattered by a bullet. She is in surgery.’ Her dead children lay beside one of her sandals, a mattress decorated in cartoon characters and a few dishes.
‘I can’t tell how many bullets flew through our walls. We had to wait before it was safe to go to the hospital,’ said Mercius Lubin, who claims UN peacekeepers killed his daughters. ‘There were four tanks [APCs] outside my house, I could see their headlights through the cracks in the walls. They shot towards my house. I can’t explain why Minustah was shooting here because they control this area.’
A woman wailed and rolled around on the ground. ‘Mes amis, mes amis!’ cried another neighbour woman. ‘Fuck you, Preval,’ said a man, referring to Haiti’s President, Rene Preval.
Neighbours gathered to denounce Minustah. The march began to swell through Cite Soleil’s streets with some 2,000 marchers, men, women and children, dancing to homemade trumpets.
Men with loudspeakers condemned President Preval. ‘We voted for you for peace, not for this.’ The crowd ran past two Minustah bases, swarms of kids bleating: ‘Baa, baa! Minustah steals goats,’ a common taunt.
As the demonstrators reached a third UN position, peacekeepers opened fired with tear gas. Then plastic bullets. Cars crashed, people fell off motorbikes. I was there reporting for a Channel 4 documentary. Our director, Robin Barnwell, was filming in the crowd. He was hit in the back of the head by a plastic bullet. The UN later said they had to break up the demonstration because it included armed gang members.
Since the UN began its crackdown, Cite Soleil’s three gang leaders have lost their power bases. Evens has been arrested – Amaral and Belony are on the run. The UN has begun delivering aid in Cite Soleil. Four hundred alleged gang members have been arrested by the UN in joint operations with the Haitian police. Among the detained is Andre Ville, half-brother of Dario Germain. Ville was taken from his house by Minusah at 5am on 5 March. He denies having any connection to gang activities. He has not been charged.
After visiting Ville in prison last Tuesday, Dario Germain described him as ‘pale and sick.’ The family can’t afford a lawyer and he has no idea when he will come before a judge.
A UN spokeswoman told The Observer the recent operations have been successful: ‘No gangs effectively operate in Cite Soleil. There have been no civilian casualties in the operations since January.’ Services are now being restored to Cite Soleil, they UN have turned former gang headquarters into clinics.
But Dario Germain, Mercius Lubin and Marie Daniel Remy still don’t know who shot their children. The UN is investigating the deaths but says it will be at least two months before an investigation into the shootings is complete.
Stefanie and Alexandra were buried yesterday. Dario Germain says he won’t be able to cry until his son is buried – but he can’t afford the funeral.
� Unreported World: Showdown in Sun City is on Channel 4, Friday 13 April, 7.30pm