Shadow in Sun City

Observations on Haiti

Relative calm followed President René Préval's election victory in February 2006, but once again violence is rising in this nation with a tumultuous history. The conflict centres around the capital, Port-au-Prince, and in particular a densely populated slum called Cité Soleil, home to nearly 300,000 people. The shanty town with the misnomer "Sun City" is regarded as the poorest in the western hemisphere, the misery of residents exacerbated by gun battles between the gangs that rule the streets and UN peacekeepers accused of human-rights abuses.

The UN force, known by its acronym Minustah (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haïti), was established in 2004 to promote peace in the wake of the departure of the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But, since December, the peacekeepers have stepped up an offensive against those they call illegally armed rebels inside Cité Soleil. Politically affiliated militias have long been a feature of Haitian politics, and Cité Soleil's gangs are opposed to the UN's presence in the country. When the fighting intensifies, innocent civilians suffer.

At Sainte-Catherine Labouré Hospital, the medical director, Jacklin Saint-Fleur, said his staff of 18 were dealing with between five and ten people with gunshot wounds each day. Many of the victims are women and children. "We are struggling to cope," he said.

Cité Soleil is divided into 34 sections, each with its own leader. The six I met all said they were supporters of the ousted Aristide and disenchanted with Préval's government and a UN force they accuse of failing to remain neutral.

"Préval has done little to help the poor. The UN is against us because of our continued support for Aristide. But we want peace here," said Amahal, leader of one zone. Father Tom Hagan, an American priest who has worked inside Cité Soleil for a decade, said he had recently secured an unprecedented proclamation of non-violence from the gang leaders, including Amahal, whom he described as the "godfather" of Cité Soleil - but his success has fallen on deaf ears. "I have tried to get the UN and the Haitian government to talk to these people but they have refused," he said wearily.

Minustah has also suffered casualties, including ten deaths. Major General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a Brazilian, leads the force. One predecessor shot himself in the head in January 2006.

Nearly a year and a half later, Minustah appears still stuck in a quagmire. Its strategy is to free Cité Soleil from gang rule and it claims that roughly 400 gangsters have been arrested during recent raids. But at what price? Why not talk peace? Both Father Tom and Saint-Fleur say it is astonishing that a peacekeeping force should embark on such an aggressive offensive in such a populated area when collateral damage is inevitable.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning