PORT-AU-PRINCE — As a car slowly approaches a roadblock manned by U.S. Marines, one Marine shouts ”That way!” in English and gestures to the side. The Haitian driver stops, turns, then stops again. He is confused.
Pfc. Louis Henriquez, 21, strolls up to the vehicle and in Creole — the only language most Haitians speak — calmly explains. Bewilderment fades from the driver’s face. He smiles, thanks the Marine in Creole and moves on.
Henriquez, born in Haiti, is one of about two dozen men and women of Haitian background serving with the U.S. military here, playing critical roles in the multinational peacekeeping force deployed to quell a bloody February revolt.
With every encounter, with every stare, the language and cultural barriers between Haitians and the foreign troops play out daily on the chaotic streets of Haiti. Most Haitians, poor and undereducated, struggle to understand what these soldiers expect. Hand signals are not always clear.
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And when American, Chilean, Canadian and French troops in Operation Secure Tomorrow fan out on patrols, one misinterpreted action — or reaction — can frustrate, anger, escalate tension and ultimately cause an explosion.
With nearly 3,000 peacekeepers in the country — 1,800 of them from the United States — it’s critical that they can read body language and decipher when two or more people are in a heated argument or simply having a good time.
”Creole is a very harsh-sounding language. We as Haitian Americans know when someone is just talking or when they’re arguing,” Marine Sgt. Marie Augustin said. “So it’s beneficial for native speakers to be here.”
For lack of a better term, the Haitian Americans who work with the U.S. and other peacekeeping forces as well as the Haitian National Police are known as a ”linguist cell,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jozy Smarth, a native of Haiti.
Smarth said their role extends well beyond acting as interpreters and translators. Most, such as Henriquez, are out on street patrol. Others, such as Smarth, an Army nurse, are trying to build American understanding of Haiti and Haitians.
Smarth, who was born in the village of Cavaillon in southwest Haiti and moved to the United States in 1972, said she has helped with everything from intelligence to communications.
”In our section we are all Haitian American, and of that we are very proud,” she said. “It’s great to be here to facilitate the success of the mission.”
For many of the Americans, who grew up in the neighborhoods they now patrol before emigrating to the United States and joining the armed forces, it’s also a return home of sorts.
Henriquez, born in Port-au-Prince and now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., still remembers the streets and the language.
Augustin, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up speaking Creole at home, said she’s learning that there are subtle differences between Creole spoken in New York and Creole spoken in Haiti. In New York a building is a beel-din — a word that Haitians do not recognize.
”It’s great being in a place where you hear Creole,” said Augustin, whose mother now lives in Port-au-Prince. “It’s rewarding to feel that in my own small way I’m able to help.”
In an atmosphere where political violence can explode at any moment, the work of the native Creole speakers who also happen to be U.S. Marines and soldiers, is key to the establishment of stability and democracy, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Bryant.
Bryant works with the commander of the Chilean forces and has traveled to every country in Latin America except three — Paraguay, Guyana and Bolivia — largely in the role of interpreter.
”Knowing the culture and understanding the mind-set of the people you’re working with is equally as important as knowing the language,” said Bryant, who is attached to the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, where he lives.
“I found that to be true in Latin America. I learned to speak Spanish in Guatemala, but the language and the culture there is very different from say . . . Colombia.”
Bryant said the U.S. military has several job descriptions that require language skills. Its diversity of languages and cultures means it has individuals who have more to contribute than just firing a weapon.
They are people like Marine Col. Mario LaPaix, who was born in Port-au-Prince and migrated to the United States at age 9. He considers himself equally Haitian and American, but said he owes all that he is today to the United States and the Marines.
An aide to Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald Coleman, who commands the multinational peacekeeping force, LaPaix sees tremendous benefit in having Creole speakers in military uniform.
”Haiti is a very complicated place,” he said. “The grass-roots people speak Creole. Those folks who are in uniform help tremendously.”