Haitian New Yorkers are protesting again, the latest round Saturday in front of the United Nations. They’re upset over the latest “peacekeeping” operation in Cite Soleil, a slum of Port-au-Prince that festers just a stone’s throw from the Bahamas. In theory, the troops are there to maintain order until the elections the interim government says they’re planning take place. In practice, their presence has resulted in reports that innocent citizens are being killed.
What’s undisputed in this case is that some 300 U.N. troops descended on the shanty town at 3 a.m. on July 6, rolling through in tank-like APC’s, or armored personnel carriers. Witnesses say they shot up pretty much everything, in some accounts in a battle with armed gang members loyal to the ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But while eyewitnesses and human rights workers say a minimum of 20 people, including women and children, were gunned down, some through the walls of their shacks, the U.N. says no civilians were harmed.
One Haitian human rights worker, who says he cannot risk identifying himself for fear of being shot to death by the Haitian police or those working under the direction of the U.N., captured some of the gore on film from which stills have been taken.
The HIP video shows 31 year-old Leonce Chery moments after a headshot ripped through his jaw. Chery was clearly unarmed as he lay bleeding to death in a pool of his own blood.
Seth Donnelly, a Bay Area high school teacher and labor activist, happened to be in Port-au-Prince as part of a delegation sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council when it all happened. The next day he found a translator to accompany him into the ghetto where he says he was surrounded by “hysterical, grieving” people who showed him bodies waiting for burial, including that of a baby shot in his mother’s arms. Donnelly also filmed homes riddled with bullet holes so big he says they could only have come from tanks.
U.N. military spokesman Elouafi Boulbars told Agence France Presse that the troops only fired into the slum because “bandits” fired first. Their goal was to find and capture Emmanuel “Dread” Wilme—a man hated and feared by the U.S.-supported Haitian government. He was reportedly killed in the raid.
Whether you consider Wilme a dead gangster or a slain hero depends largely upon whether you sleep in plush government housing or in a Cite Soleil sewer, and the hundreds of slum dwellers who attended Wilme’s July 9 funeral fall into the latter category.
Few of the approximately 75 New York Haitians gathered at the U.N. went so far as to call Wilme a hero, but Bernier Achille, who works for the post office, angrily insisted there is no problem with gangs in Haiti. “It’s code to demonize you,” he said. “In Iraq they call them insurgents, in Haiti they call them gangs.” Most protesters were more circumspect, preferring to keep the focus on the dead civilians as they waved graphic photographs they said were of the machine-gunned poor.
Two days after the slaughter, when Donnelly interviewed two high commanders in Haiti, Lt Gen Augusto Heleno and Colonel Morano, at the swank Christopher Hotel in Port-au-Prince, both officials said that to their knowledge no Civilians were hurt.
This is particularly odd, not only because stills from the film footage clearly show unarmed men and women being shot, but because officials at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Port-au-Prince say they received more than the usual number of machine-gun victims from the often violent Cite Soleil on the afternoon of July 6: Twenty women and children, as well as six men. The patients told their doctors they’d been shot by U.N. soldiers.
Lying in blood on the floor of the modest home were Mr. Romelus’s wife, 22 year-old Sonia Romelus who was killed by the same bullet that passed through the body of her 1 year-old infant son Nelson.
When asked about the 20 or so bodies eyewitnesses say remained after the U.N. rolled out, Morano said that maybe gang members killed people after the peacekeepers left. What the colonel has going for him is that because the graphic footage only shows people being killed, and not the killers, it is impossible for someone who wasn’t there to confirm without a doubt that the UN is responsible.
Brian Concannon, director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, says the peacekeepers could easily have verified the number of people killed and injured, and how—if they had stayed on the scene long enough to clean up. Because they did not, “it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt they created.”
People at Saturday’s protest believe the U.N. is responsible. Lucas Batteau, a Brooklyn electrician, said “everyone knows” the U.N. is the real gang in Haiti. “There’s no difference between the Haitian police and U.N.,” he says. “The ones they call ‘gangs’ are fighting against the occupation.”