In a written statement quietly released last Monday, the United Nations admitted it was possible that civilians were injured in a raid by its peacekeepers on July 6 in Cite Soleil, a vast concrete-block shantytown of about 250,000.
Haitians both in that country and in the United States have been protesting the actions of the troops, saying a number of innocent people were killed.
The U.N. plans to investigate exactly what happened in the predawn raid. Officials didn’t return Voice calls, but by their own account 400 peacekeepers invaded the Cite Soleil neighborhood carrying machine guns and driving tank-like
They claim to have killed Wilme and four associates in the raid. Two weeks after the killings, they said they knew of no civilian casualties that day, but now they acknowledge there might have been some.
People in the Bois Neuf section of Cite Soleil tell the Voice peacekeepers shot from helicopters and tanks while families slept or were just getting up to start their day. At a recent meeting in a cramped Port-au-Prince cafeteria, Pierre Alexis, director of Cite Soleil’s tiny Red Cross infirmary, said his team was first on the scene after the U.N. pulled out around 6:45 that morning. Twenty-six people, mostly women and children, were injured, and taxi-vans were hired to transport them all to the Doctors Without Borders hospital. In an interview, hospital chief Ali Besnaci later confirmed Alexis’s account.
They call Cite Soleil home.
Theoretically, peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the U.N. Mission in Haiti, are there to quell the violence between Haitian National Police and armed groups—some truly political in nature, others merely hired by political factions—until the country is stabilized. Their mission began in June 2004. At first, MINUSTAH tried to stop police from gunning down peaceful demonstrators for the ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only to have the interim government accuse the U.N. of overstepping its mandate—which is, after all, to help the cops and support the interim government. MINUSTAH commanders backed down, but they couldn’t win for losing.
By spring, human rights groups were criticizing the peacekeeping force for doing nothing as police continued to have their way with Aristide supporters. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful criticized the troops for doing nothing while armed groups terrorized the streets.
In late spring a prominent Haitian industrialist went on the radio accusing the U.N. of complicity with “bandits” for the majority Lavalas party. Then the U.S. embassy started muttering about sending in the marines. At the beginning of June, James Foley, U.S. ambassador to Haiti, told AP reporters that MINUSTAH wasn’t doing its job. That’s about when, critics say, MINUSTAH started hammering down on the poor—in the name of killing off “bandits” and “gangsters.”
After the raid, outraged human rights activists began funding pilgrimages to Port-au-Prince to see the damage for themselves. They returned with eyewitness accounts and photos of dead children, igniting a nationwide series of protests.
Cite Soleil residents showed the Voice bandaged wounds, tin roofing ripped up by what they said was gunfire from helicopters, schoolhouse walls riddled with bullet holes. One man stood on the unmarked grave—a mound of dirt strewn with garbage—of a man he said was shot in the face by a U.N. peacekeeper. Jean-Joseph Joelle, a member of a pro-Aristide Lavalas group in Cite Soleil, spoke for many residents when he said they “can’t really call it a massacre anymore. To us it seems like genocide.”
MINUSTAH left many more men, women, and children dead, residents claim, not only that morning, but in days to follow as injured people slowly died. They say these bodies are now buried in random places throughout the broken cement, weeds, and canals of sewage. The Red Cross’s Alexis confirmed that Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure has fallen to such a level that workers from the state-run General Hospital no longer transport bodies from Cite Soleil to the morgue—he says people just deal with their dead as best as they can.
Loisne Nelio points to where he says gunfire from a helicopter showered his home. He says his wife was in bed at the time and lost both of her legs due to the bullets.
On July 7, the day after the incursion, Alexis says slum dwellers walked to his outpost and asked for the black plastic body bags and “pikwas”—digging implements the Red Cross tries to keep on hand. The 50 bags he distributed offer the bodies some protection from flies, and lock in the rotting smell while family and friends dig the grave with the borrowed tools.
In a country this destitute, with virtually no ability to conduct forensic science, the agency accused of atrocities is the only organization with the resources to get to the bottom of things. Activists are calling for an independent investigation, by someone.
As it stands it’s a big mess. According to the U.N.’s statement, the Haitian National Police (who reportedly stood in the background as MINUSTAH conducted the operation) said that “gangs” were seen killing civilians later that morning, and that those deaths were wrongly attributed to the U.N.
Brick mason Mira Nelson, 56, says he was shot in the leg by a U.N. soldier on a tank while walking to work around 6:15 a.m. on July 6.
A human rights worker familiar with the intricacies of Cite Soleil says that though he is no fan of how the U.N. has been conducting itself, it is not inconceivable that some part of the civilian damage could have been inflicted by friends of Wilme after MINUSTAH left. There’s always the chance, he says, that some desperate Cite Soleil resident tipped off (or was suspected of tipping off) the U.N. and was forced to pay with his or her life.
In an effort to sort fact from rumor, Anne Sosin of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has assigned the case to a Port-au-Prince based investigator. Still, without the ability to order autopsies or ballistics tests, all the activists can really do is ask questions.