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In Haiti, Danger Slices Through the Air

Times Staff Writer

Michelet Etienne was kicking a soccer ball around the warren of cinderblock hovels where he lives when a U.N. patrol thundered by and gunmen leaped from their hiding places to spray it with bullets.

When the shooting was over, the 12-year-old lay bleeding and unconscious amid piles of garbage and potholes filled with fetid water. A stray bullet had blown out part of his skull and severed his spinal cord, rendering his skinny legs useless.

“I can’t bring my feet together,” the listless child whimpered in the crowded recovery ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital a week later. “I can’t move my feet.”

Like hundreds of other hapless bystanders over the last year, Michelet was caught in the crossfire between gunmen and besieged peacekeepers, an increasingly dangerous fact of life for the 2.5 million Haitians doomed to the teeming slums of this capital.

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With the approach of Tuesday’s elections, the first since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled an armed rebellion two years ago, pressure has mounted on U.N. forces to break the gangs’ stranglehold on the city. The crackdown has accelerated the deaths and injuries.

Aristide loyalists claim that some of the casualties are victims of trigger-happy peacekeepers in league with corrupt Haitian police. Diplomats call the gunmen common criminals who are trying to protect their drug- and gun-running operations from the United Nations force, which is made up of more than 9,000 soldiers and police from three dozen countries, mostly in Latin America and Asia.

It used to be that most of the shooting victims came from a couple of trouble spots, slums such as Cite Soleil and Bel Air, said Ali Besnaci, a French physician who heads the trauma clinic run by Doctors Without Borders at St. Joseph’s.

“Now the problem has spread all over,” he said.

Of the more than 300 gunshot victims treated at St. Joseph’s in the last six weeks, at least half were women, children and elderly, clearly not combatants in the city’s street-by-street clashes, Besnaci said.

In December, Doctors Without Borders’ two downtown emergency units treated 220 people with bullet wounds, 26 of those in a single, violent day after Christmas. Among the victims were a 15-month-old and a 77-year-old. Since the aid group arrived here 13 months ago, its volunteer surgeons have treated nearly 2,500 people.

“It’s terrible. It’s simply unacceptable,” Besnaci said as he visited the bedsides of the maimed, laid out in rows of gurneys and covered with stained sheets.

He appealed to Haitian police and the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, to be more mindful of the risks to bystanders as troops seek control of the city.

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The victims’ stories reflect an atmosphere of seething tension and fraying nerves.

When Jean-Rony Francois arrived for work at the Acierie d’Haiti steel mill three weeks ago, he said, gunmen were shooting at Jordanian U.N. troops from behind a factory wall. The Jordanians returned fire.

“I didn’t see who was firing. I was inside. But the bullets came from the direction of MINUSTAH,” the 22-year-old recalled. Struck twice by shots that penetrated the walls, he lost the use of his right arm and both legs. “When they were done firing, they just took off.”

Residents of the capital’s most overcrowded and impoverished areas say their need to work compels them to wade into the middle of such shootouts, which occur daily.

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John Lumera, 35, who made a living selling lottery tickets, was shot in the leg. The wound became gangrenous and his limb had to be amputated. Now his four children have no means of support.

“I don’t know why they were shooting,” he said. “It seemed to be at random. I couldn’t see anyone they [the U.N. troops] were firing on, but I was flat on the ground.”

Human rights monitors contend the foreign troops are overreacting to Haitian government complaints that they have failed in the two years they’ve been here to disarm the gangs and bring security to the urban war zones. The international force has lost 13 of its members to violence and accidents during the deployment.

“MINUSTAH soldiers seem to have lost their cool since four of their associates were killed since late December,” said Pierre Esperance, head of the National Human Rights Defense Network.

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Pro-Aristide activists insist the civilians are victims of a conspiracy to eliminate critics of the international community’s attempts to stabilize Haiti.

“The job of MINUSTAH is to silence the majority of Haitians who want Aristide back,” said Jean-Yvon Kernizan, head of the September 30 Foundation, a New York-based exile group named for the 1991 date of Aristide’s first ouster from power. “They’re eliminating part of the population to satisfy another, the elite. Where else could that happen without the whole world crying out? Only in Haiti.”

Juan Gabriel Valdes, a Chilean who is the top U.N. official here, says his mission is damned if it confronts the gunmen and damned if it doesn’t.

While supporters of Aristide’s deposed Lavalas movement claim Haitian police and the peacekeepers have carried out political killings, residents and merchants of the capital have repeatedly protested the U.N.'s failure to disarm what they say are no more than a few hundred gangsters.

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“MINUSTAH is accused of not acting and of acting too much,” Valdes said.

U.N. mission spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona disputed victims’ claims that peacekeepers fire indiscriminately.

“The rules of engagement are very strict. They are really trying to be very careful,” he said.

Western diplomats and senior U.N. officials say MINUSTAH has sought to revise its methods in the face of mounting civilian casualties.

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Before his death last month, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot, the mission’s Brazilian commander, Lt. Gen. Urano Teixeira Da Matta Bacellar, ordered those patrolling Cite Soleil to remove the .50-caliber guns from their armored personnel carriers because they were too powerful, a senior envoy said.

He attributed the rising toll among bystanders to gangs’ challenging peacekeepers. The troops are getting in the way of the gangs’ drug deals, arms trading and kidnapping schemes, he said. More than 200 people have been kidnapped in the last two months alone.

Doctors Without Borders treats all comers to its clinics for free, regardless of any involvement in the bloodshed. The doctors say that at least half the nearly 2,500 shooting and stabbing victims they have treated were bystanders; many of the rest were probably participants in the fighting.

“They sometimes tell a different story once they get here,” said British anesthesiologist Rachael Craven, indicating a muscular young man with a scarred chest and a gang insignia necklace.

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The patient she referred to, 23-year-old Santil Alexandre, recently presented himself to a triage unit in Cite Soleil, the most violent of the slums, telling medics that he had been shot. After being transferred to St. Joseph’s, he told authorities there that the circular wound in his leg was the result of an accident.


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