DDR in Haiti: The UN's cleansing of Bel Air ahead of elections
December 17, 2005
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In Ruelle Felix, Boukman pointed to the house where the police arrested a 16-year old this summer. The outside of the house was painted brightly with the Haitian flag, but the mural was now pockmarked with holes from bullets fired by the police. Photos: © 2005 Manne Granqvist

DDR in Haiti: The UN's cleansing of Bel Air ahead of elections

UN armored vehicle patrols the streets of Bel Air.
A Haiti Information Project (HIP) Special Report
by Isabel MacDonald

View all 12 images for this story in web photo gallery < click this link

HIP, Haiti — According to Juan Gabriel Valdes, the head of the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the upcoming Haitian elections scheduled for January 8 will mark "a major victory for the electoral process." A central strategy in preparing for the vote is MINUSTAH's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reinsertion (DDR) campaign. In theory, DDR offers both sides of the political conflict in Haiti — armed Lavalas supporters and the former paramilitary death squads and disbanded army who led the Canada, US and France sponsored coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide's FL government — the chance to hand over their arms in exchange for amnesty and reintegration. While the former military have been offered more than 12 million US dollars as a buy-out for their loyalty to the process, Lavalas remains as demonized and destitute as the day the UN began its occupation of Haiti in the name of "restoring democracy." While former death squad leaders like Jodel Chamblain have been set free, Lavalas leaders such as Father Gerard Jean-Juste continue to waste away in prison with little hope of justice.

DDR is being trumpeted as a particular success in Bel Air, a Port-au-Prince slum where support for Aristide and resistance to the coup has been particularly strong. At a press conference on November 28, Valdes held up Bel Air as an example of a triumph for MINUSTAH's "dialogue" with "problem" (read Lavalas-supporting) neighborhoods. In contrast to Bel Air's neighboring slum of Cite Soleil, which is also a stronghold of Lavalas support, and where civilian deaths caused by MINUSTAH have recently attracted some negative international media attention, Valdes trumpeted the UN's "stabilization" operations in Bel Air as a good news story.

The Brazilian army's success in disarming and "stabilizing" Bel Air were highlighted on December 5, at a ceremony marking the arrival of a new contingent of troops; it is the Brazilians who have been leading UN operations in Bel Air. The event took place at the MINUSTAH base, which occupies an entire university constructed under the Aristide government, in which the classrooms and offices are now teeming with heavily armed, blue-helmet-clad soldiers of the UN "stabilization" forces, with the residences transformed into army barracks. The outgoing Brazilian MINUSTAH commander opened the ceremonies in the middle of what once had been the university's soccer field; for the occasion of the ceremony, the field was populated with a different sort of game, whose players included some 2000 UN soldiers adorned with M16s, and a gaggle of diplomats, including Canadian Ambassador Claude Boucher. The incoming Brazilian MINUSTAH commander gushed at the ceremony about the manner in which MINUSTAH operations had been carried out in Bel Air. The commander praised the manner in which the troops had carried out their "operations," "always with the greatest respect for the Haitian people and their customs," and with "good relations" with local communities, and he gave a particular "thanks to outgoing Brazilian MINUSTAH troops for the pacification of Bel Air."

Lies, prison sentences and DDR in practice

The streets of Bel Air are strewn with banners trumpeting the supposed reconciliation wrought by DDR. However, for members of the community who have participated in the disarmament, DDR has proven more than a great disappointment. In July, Zakat Zanfan, an organization that works with street kids, had agreed to participate with MINUSTAH DDR authorities. In exchange, the UN promised to assist the community with development projects including providing food for the most vulnerable especially the hungry children of the neighborhood. According to Robert Montinard, a Zakat organizer, "they promised us education housing, food, jobs". Zakat facilitated seminars about the importance of ceasing violence for some of the youth they work with, in which they urged kids to give up their guns to the UN.

Following Zakat's seminars, 28 people from the community who had participated in DDR were arrested and thrown in jail; two participants, Lundi Duckens, and another man by the name of Stevenson, who was referred to by his friends as "Coeur Rouge," are still in the Haitian National Penitentiary. Meanwhile, Montinard told me "so far, we have received nothing from the UN". On December 8, when I visited Bel Air, Zakat had just run out of rice, and had had to turn fifty hungry kids away. Moreover, that very morning, MINUSTAH secured the perimeter as hooded police raided their neighborhood yet again.

From a small office marked with a hand-painted sign that read "DDR Office," Samba Boukman, Lavalas organizer in Bel Air, explained to me that the community did not have many weapons in the first place, particularly when compared to the Haitian National Police, which has carried out a series of deadly attacks on the community since February 29, 2004. Hundreds of Bel Air residents have been killed or injured at the hands of the U.S. marines, Haitian National Police and the MINUSTAH troops since the coup. At first people defended themselves by showering the invading troops and police with rocks and bottles from surrounding rooftops. The U.S. marines responded with a deadly incursion in the early morning hours of March 12, 2004 that ended with blood being hosed from the streets by fire trucks and dozens of body bags being removed by the time reporters arrived on the scene. Most recently, a police officer or MINUSTAH soldier would drop a gun as they attempted to withdraw from the hail of chunks of concrete and glass, which people in the community would appropriate as a means of self defense, Boukman explained.

The litany of police crimes

Whole streets of Bel Air now lie empty in the wake of violent police raids, carried out by the HNP, often with the assistance of hooded police attaches, and the complicity of MINUSTAH police (a force which was formerly referred to as CIVPOL, but whose name has recently been changed to UNPOL dropping the misleading suggestion that the force, which increasingly consists of military police, is a civil police force).

As the UN military used its guns to control the outer perimeter of Bel Air, the Haitian police and machete-wielding paramilitaries [Lame Ti Manchèt] would drive through the neighborhood on killing and torching sprees designed to terrorize the inhabitants. In Ruelle Felix, Boukman pointed to the house where the police arrested a 16-year old this summer. The outside of the house was painted brightly with the Haitian flag, but the mural was now pockmarked with holes from bullets fired by the police. Just a block over, we walked past a series of abandoned houses; only parts of the walls remained. On June 4, HNP and hooded police attaches had burned a block of houses, arrested 22 people from these houses, and loaded them into a police wagon. Their neighbors arrived at the police commissariat soon afterwards, expecting to find them there; however, those arrested were nowhere to be found. Later, it was discovered that the police wagon had stopped on a small street where all of the arrestees had been summarily executed. A seventy year-old man was amongst those shot by the police that day, Boukman told us. As we were leaving, a woman came over, and angrily began explaining that she had lived here, before the police burned down her home.

We walked on, and arrived at an open area, where the concrete foundations of what had been a series of houses were exposed, littered with bedsprings and piles of rubble; in the middle of one foundation, a young woman was asleep on a bare mattress. One Bel Air resident told me that there had been about 8 houses there, until police burned them down on July 7. We walked on, along the path of living history claimed and passed on to us by the survivors of the death and destruction wrought by the Haitian police. We saw more houses that had been burned in a major police operation on July 11. We saw the remains of another raid in September, and another in October-

Constitutional rights undermined

According to Boukman, "with President Aristide, there were jobs, there was education, development, but with the Latortue government, there is just violence, and violations of the constitution;" he emphasized that the Haitian constitution guarantees "the right to live".

Following the coup, more than 12,000 public sector employees, who had been hired under the Aristide government, were immediately fired without compensation.

Two of the people I talked with on my recent visit to Bel Air, Bazile and Vital, a couple with nine children, were both amongst the thousands of workers fired at the state telecommunications department following the coup. Vital, who had been working at the Teleco for over ten years, was placed on a "wanted" list by the Latortue government, along with 32 of his former co-workers, and has had to go into hiding. On July 11, the police had stormed into the family's small home, breaking their furniture, in their search for Vital. "I do not know why they are searching for me. I am only a technician," he told me. Now he cannot look for other work, for fear of being wrongfully imprisoned, and is worried about how they are going to support their children.

"How can we live without eating?" Vital exclaimed.

When I asked Vital about why he thought the police were targeting him, he shrugged and shook his head; maybe painting dozens of former Teleco workers as "criminals" was a way of justifying their firing?

Father Jean-Juste looks to street from prison cell.
Selection elections

When I asked Boukman about his position on the upcoming elections, he emphasized, "We support elections;" however, he added, "we will not participate in a selection." Lavalas' conditions for elections include the liberation of political prisoners, the departure of the defacto government and the establishment of a new government to establish good relations amongst all sectors of the population, an end of repression in the popular neighborhoods, total disarmament, a general amnesty and a return of the political exiles, particularly President Aristide. However, not even one of these conditions has been met nor seriously considered by the U.S.-installed government and their guarantors in the United Nations. How could there be real elections, Boukman emphasized, when Fanmi Lavalas' (FLs') anticipated presidential candidate, Father Gerard Jean Juste, was still in prison along with countless other members of the movement?

Just a couple of days earlier, I had been to see Jean Juste, who is recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and who has been in prison for four months since his latest arrest on bogus charges by the defacto Haitian government. This is the second time Father Jean Juste has been wrongfully imprisoned by the Latortue regime. "It seems that it's a matter of they don't want to release me in time for the elections," Jean Juste stated. "They are afraid I may run, afraid I may cause trouble, I may try to bring them to court for what they have done to me."

On the same visit to the jail, I also spoke with Jacques Matelier, a Lavalas deputy who is being held in the same prison as Jean Juste. "I have been here for 17 months," Matelier told me, "just because I was on the Council of Departmental Delegates in the South … they have nothing to accuse me with; their hands are empty. They just want to keep me in prison because I am a Lavalasien."

The following day, I visited popular Haitian folk singer and grandmother Annette "So An" Auguste, in the Petionville women's prison. So An has been imprisoned without charges since May 2004, when US marines used grenades to bust into her house, while she and five children were sleeping. So An appears to have been arrested merely because she is an outspoken critic who is extremely popular in Lavalas-supporting neighborhoods.

A few months ago, there were only 45 women in the Petionville prison; today there are about 200óor seven women to each tiny jail cell. Many of these women are from Bel Air. Guerline, an organizer with a Bel Air community organization that fights for women's rights, Famn Vayan Bele, told me that many Bel Air women have been locked up in Petionville after the police came searching for their male partners in their homes. When the police failed to find the men, they took the women instead. "It's another form of kidnapping," Guerline remarked about the imprisoned Bel Air women's hostage-like situation. The police have also hauled many young men from the neighborhood off to prison.

Given the present conditions in Haiti, many Bel Air residents and Lavalas supporters appear extremely skeptical of the upcoming elections. As Montinard put it, "how can we vote with our brothers and sisters in prison?"

"Given that they have not met even one of [Lavalas'] demands, we are not going to vote," Boukman told me; he is urging others not to take part in a sham vote, and to demand a real election instead.

Guy Phillippe candidate for President of Haiti
The dancing banker

The police and MINUSTAH actions in Bel Air are justified as providing greater security. However, it is unclear that general security has increased at all for average Bel Air residents; in fact, many people suggested that it had declined. As we were strolling along the main street through Bel Air, we saw a piece of fabric with a name written on it, to commemorate a street merchant; the day before, the merchant, who sold ice, had been killed and robbed while he was at work.

Things like this didn't happen before, an old woman passing by in the street told me. In her opinion, MINUSTAH has just made things worse.

On the afternoon of December 11, I was standing amidst a group of Bel Air youth watching a hip-hop talent show on a small stage outside the Perpetuel church. The show was put on by Fugees star Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti youth and education organization, with the sponsorship of United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Wyclef's organization has played the uncanny role of moving into neighborhoods like Bel Air and Cite Soleil blaring loud music and laden with groceries following brutal police and U.N. operations. What may have once been called Operation Phoenix bent on winning hearts and minds in Vietnam has now been replaced by its heir in Haiti and could be aptly deemed Operation Hip-Hop. There I spotted the president of one of Haiti's largest banks, USAID-assisted Banque de l'Union Haïtienne (BUH), Richard Sassine, sporting a Yele Ayiti t-shirt, and chatting it up with the event co-coordinator.

I knew Sassine had been at the conference in Montreal in December 2004, whose centerpiece press conference of the Canadian and Haitian Prime Ministers had played an important role in legitimating the unelected Latortue government. During the course of the conference, Sassine had ranted to a Canadian journalist about his dissatisfaction with the MINUSTAH forces; they really needed to "crack down" more harshly on neighborhoods like Bel Air and Cite Soleil, he said.

Seeing Sassine at the centre of a community youth event in Bel Air, I began to wonder: what on earth is this plump, light-skinned multi-millionaire with a clear disdain for the Lavalas-supporting poor black slums doing here?

I walked up to Sassine with my video camera; "so what are you hoping to accomplish here in Bel Air today?" I inquired. He began to talk about the misery and poverty of the people of Bel Air, and soon came to the "problem" of "criminality," which he implied was being sponsored internationally, possibly by a certain exiled President in South Africa. Really, he told me, we need to just stick everyone with unregistered weapons in jail, "and not let them out". He added that he was glad that MINUSTAH was now being "more proactive".

"This is a great day. Here I am the President of a large Haitian bank, standing, at sunset, in the middle of Bel Air," he crowed. Just then, the popular and radical Bel Air band Raram, which recently had two of its members killed and three more jailed in MINUSTAH/HNP "stabilization operations," came marching down with great fanfare from Rue Macajou, playing their horns and drums. For a few moments, I thought I thought I had lost sight of the banker, in the midst of the excited crowds that now engulfed the street. But suddenly, there in the midst of the musicians, at the centre of the hundred or so dancing locals, up popped Sassine again, waving his arms and shaking his booty.

So all those imprisonments, house-burnings, assassinations, summary executions and broken promises that the police and MINUSTAH have waged on Bel Air are a success from a security standpoint after all; it is just that one has to be a rare Haitian multimillionaire to feel any of the benefits of this "security". And as for the majority of the population, it appears they don't count anyway, at least in the setup of the rigged elections being sponsored by Canada, the United States, France and the United Nations.

Kevin Pina also contributed to this article from Port au Prince, Haiti.

© 2005 Haiti Information Project (HIP)

See Also

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