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Wednesday, April 26, 2017
- In this neighbourhood overlooking the placid bay of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, a ghostly silence wraps itself around the burned tin shacks, concrete hovels gutted and scorched black by flames, and jagged rocks that form the paths of the hillside slum, spattered with blood.
“Go down there and you can see for yourself,” says Brunet Pierre, a silver-haired resident who lifts his orange t-shirt to reveal a fresh bullet wound in his side. “There is nothing but death in this neighbourhood, no life at all.”
He motions toward a dirt path surrounded on all sides with still-smouldering shacks, shell casings littering the ground, and scorched animals lying among the ruins.
Across the mountaintop slums that ring Port-au-Prince’s southern quarter, collectively known as Martissant, hundreds of home lie burned and abandoned.
A steady stream of refugees head daily down the Avenue Bolosse, their belongings piled on their heads, fleeing the violence. Some 300 have taken refuge in a nearby Baptist mission, where women and young children sleep on the concrete floor of a steaming conference hall, sheltered from the summer rains.
“They were shooting a lot of people and everybody had to run,” says Marie Julien, a 44-year-old who fled Grand-Ravine with her six children and now sits under the blazing sun in the mission’s parking lot. “They burned our house. I don’t know why they are doing this.”
After a period of calm following the February election of President René Préval, a one-time Aristide ally who also served as Haiti’s president from 1996 until 2001 and has since become estranged from the former priest, the violence that often wracks the impoverished Caribbean nation of eight million appears to have returned.
Neither Haiti’s Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH) police force, nor the 6,500 strong United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) peacekeeping force seem able or willing to stop it. At least 30 people have been reported killed in the past two weeks, though the true total could be higher.
In front of a shuttered ‘borlette’ (lottery bank) in Grand-Ravine, a group of fierce-looking young men, pistols bulging from underneath some of their shirts, sit swilling rum from a champagne glass.
“You can see what the gangs from Ti Bois have done,” says the group’s leader, who says his name is Wilkens and is dressed in a New York Knicks basketball jersey and a baseball cap pulled down over a scar that criss-crosses one eyebrow. “They have killed people, burned down their houses, some police are giving them weapons,” he adds.
Many Grand-Ravine residents blame rogue elements within the PNH for involvement in the killings, specifically charging a former police official with financing and organising a gang known as Lamè Ti Machet (The Little Machete Army).
Residents charge that Carlo Lochard, who served as PNH director for the West Department, of which Port-au-Prince is a part, under the interim government (March 2004-May 2006), is involved in the recent violence. Lochard had been dismissed from the PNH for alleged human rights abuses under the first Préval administration, and reintegrated into the force under Aristide, where he served as director of the police commissariat of the adjoining neighbourhood of Carrefour, later transferred to the affluent Petionville suburb.
Lochard had been arrested for his alleged involvement in an August 2005 attack on a football match in Martissant which saw over a dozen people killed, but he was released from prison on the orders of Haitian judge Jean Perez Paul in March of this year. Attempts to locate Lochard for comment in his Carrefour-Feuilles neighbourhood proved unsuccessful.
“The situation started getting worse in Martissant in June,” says Pierre Esperance, executive director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) human rights group, whose organisation sent a letter to Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis in late June denouncing the incipient violence and warning the authorities not stand by and watch “the transformation of these conflicts into war between the zones.”
“Leaders of armed groups secretly (recommenced) their operations over the weekend of June 3-4, 2006,” the letter read. “Given the precedent of pervious conflicts between (the neighbourhoods)…We deplore that no concrete action has been implemented by the UN forces in collaboration with the PNH, up to this date, to apprehend the leaders of these armed groups.”
However, the people of Ti Bois and Déscartes have their own tales of woe.
“We have children and we are very afraid,” says Ti Bois resident Destine Jocelyn, as she nervously peers out from a square, concrete home on an otherwise largely deserted path. “Those gangs from Grand-Ravine come to kill us.”
“We are suffering. They burn houses, they kill people with guns and machetes,” says a young man amidst a group loitering at a small, abandoned bandshell further up the path, marking the apex of a hill covered with gutted homes. He throws a blue tank-top over his head to shield himself from the blazing son. His leg sports a recently healed bullet wound.
Residents who gather around produce crude colour photos of at least half a dozen bloody corpses, including that of a pregnant woman, whom they say the gangs from Grand-Ravine have killed in the last year. Locals also tell of a secret grave in a coconut palm grove where the gangs dump their victims’ bodies.
Recently, a gang leader named Dymsley “Ti Lou” Milien, who had been arrested in connection with the murder of Haiti’s most prominent journalist, Jean Dominique, in April 2000, but who escaped from prison in February 2005, was said to have been leading a gang based out of Grand-Ravine. The Lycée Jean Dominique, a high school built in tribute to the journalist and straddling the border between Grand-Ravine and Ti Bois, is now abandoned and riddled with bullet holes, as if in mute testament that the violence that felled the reporter is still a part of daily life.
Numbering fewer than a dozen, the Sri Lankan UN soldiers, interspersed in groups of threes throughout Martissant, are unable to communicate with the population as they lack a common language. No Haitian police personnel were visible anywhere in the district.
“We cannot prevent that. We don’t have an executive mandate,” explains Edmond Mulet, Head of Mission for MINUSTAH. As of yet, there has been no request made by the Préval government for UN forces to support PNH personnel to stop the violence in Matrissant. “We are here to support the government and we always have to go in accompanying or supporting PNH actions.”
The districts have a history of violent conflict between politico-criminal elements and the politicians who act as their patrons. In June 2001, a gang based out of Grand-Ravine and led by a local boss named Felix “Don Fefe” Bien-Aimé, killed more than a dozen people in the adjoining Fort Mercredi slum. Bien-Aimé was later appointed as director of the Port-au-Prince cemetery by Aristide and was subsequently seized by Haitian police from a car he was driving in September 2002, never to be seen again.
Some observers in Haiti view the violence in the district as a direct challenge to Préval’s authority and the security team he has surrounded himself with.
“President Préval’s honeymoon was a short one and there is no doubt that there are forces that want him to fail,” says one member of Haiti’s business elite who has been largely supportive of the president since his return to office. “Andresol is doing some cleaning up and there are some forces saying ‘Over my dead body.'”
Haiti’s police chief Mario Andresol, who has a reputation of integrity in an institution not otherwise known for the trait, had served as the head of the country’s judicial police during Préval’s first tenure, charged with, among other things, investigating high-profile crimes such as the Dominique murder, and that of Jean Lamy, a former army officer thought likely to one day head the PNH.
During his years in the force, Andresol survived at least two assassination attempts, and was jailed for nearly a month without trial after Aristide’s return to office in 2001. Upon his release, Andresol went into exile in Florida, and only returned to head the police last year.
Préval’s closest advisor during his electoral campaign, former police official Robert Manuel, served as Secretary State for Public Security in Préval’s first government, and was forced to flee the country in 1999 under direct threat from thugs representing Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Party. The man who now holds Manuel’s old job, Luc-Eucher Joseph, had previously served as Inspector General of the PNH, before fleeing Haiti under pressure from Aristide-linked groups in 2000.
“We think he (Andresol) is an excellent professional,” says MINUSTAH chief Mulet. “He knows what he wants, he’s a decent person (and) he’s very committed to fight against corruption within the police force at large and in Haiti overall.”
In the struggle for power, though, the population of Matrissant continues to be caught in the middle – defenceless victims of a battle they did not want and cannot stop.
“We can’t sleep, we are very hungry because we have nothing to eat,” says Avile Pierre, an elderly woman, as she sits among the exhausted refugees at the Baptist mission. “Our homes are gone, and we don’t have any money to go anywhere else.”