Originally: Haiti’s spiral of violence picks up speed

 August 2, 2005

First, Nancy Roc’s neighbour in Port-au-Prince was attacked by gangs, shot dead as he tried to defend himself with a chair.

Then Ms. Roc, a veteran investigative journalist in Haiti, was warned she was about to become a victim of violence herself.

“I received calls saying my kidnapping was a matter of hours away. They were going to get me at any cost,” she recalled. “I knew I had to flee that very day.”

So in June, Ms. Roc, having faced down previous assassination attempts in her 20-year career, left her homeland and fled to Montreal.

She was one of the latest members of Haiti’s intelligentsia to be chased away by kidnappers and criminals as the country descends into a dark period of terror with unprecedented levels of violence, killings and rapes.

A few weeks after Ms. Roc left Haiti, a journalist named Jacques Roches, also a critic of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was abducted. He was found dead on July 15, his tongue ripped out, his bones broken, his arms dislocated.

“If I hadn’t got out, that would be me,” Ms. Roc said in a telephone interview.

Since last September, more than 700 people have been killed in the impoverished Caribbean island country of 8.4 million, as pitched battles rage between the Haitian National Police and armed supporters of Mr. Aristide. The ex-president was overthrown Feb. 29, 2004, in a bloody uprising led by former soldiers and armed rebels. He now lives in exile in South Africa.

The U.S.-backed interim government has been unable to re-establish order, and the 7,400-member United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, been criticized for failing to quell the violence. (On July 6, however, Minustah did show its muscle in an eight-hour operation in the slum of Cité Soleil that left six armed gang leaders dead.)

The Dominican Republic, with its pristine beaches and turquoise water, shares a border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. While the first country is a popular Canadian tourist destination, the other is now considered so dangerous that many foreign embassies have removed all non-essential staff.

With six to 10 kidnappings a day (including three Canadian citizens in June), the Canadian embassy has advised against travel to Haiti and has warned Canadians in the country to stock up on food and water and to stay in at night.

Kidnappings are a staple in Haiti, which has a long history of oppression, political instability and economic inequality. But a disturbing level of gratuitous violence now accompanies many of the incidents, and victims are not always released after the ransom is paid. Instead, there have been reports of women being gang raped.

“There is such a level of violence in Haiti, and the international community is silent,” Ms. Roc said.

“The United Nations has not been active enough and when they do intervene, all these human-rights groups complain about it. Aristide is fighting an information war from his exile in South Africa.”

Some diplomats warn that unless Canada, the United States and other friends of Haiti take on higher-profile roles, there will be further unrest and turmoil in a country many are already calling a failed state.

“Africa and Darfur are the flavour of the month. But Canada needs a more high-profile engagement in a country that matters to the hemisphere,” a Western diplomat said. “We are looked upon as an ally in the region, and we share a linguistic history. There are 150,000 Haitian Canadians.”

Forty-one countries are participating in Minustah, including 100 Canadian police officers, an RCMP officer who is head of the civilian policing effort, and three senior staffers from the Canadian Forces.

However, unlike the UN mission deployed to Haiti in 1994, which was dominated by U.S. and Canadian soldiers, a Brazilian general is in charge this time, and the soldiers come from a diverse group of countries including Argentina, Guatemala, Jordan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently asked the United States to send soldiers to bolster a planned UN rapid-reaction force. Canada has also reportedly been approached, although so far neither country has committed to sending troops.

The Department of National Defence is monitoring the situation, said spokeswoman Captain Holly Apostoliuk. “Canada has committed to helping regions of conflict such as Haiti to regain stability and build lasting peace.”

Haiti already receives more Canadian aid than any other country in the Americas, and Ottawa has committed $180-million over the next two years. Canada will also monitor the troubled country’s coming elections.

Many observers believe the current violence is an attempt by gangs loyal to Mr. Aristide to destabilize the country and prevent municipal, legislative and presidential elections from going ahead this fall. Many in Haiti’s slums remain loyal to the deposed leader.

“There is incontrovertible evidence that Aristide supporters are responsible for the lion’s share of violence in Port-au-Prince,” said James Morrell, a member of the Washington-based independent research group Haiti Democracy Project. “This is not amorphous violence but a campaign to seize power.”

He, too, is frustrated by the lack of international attention on what he describes as a looming crisis. Mr. Morrell says there has been an exodus to Miami and Canada of Haitian business people who have been targeted by kidnappers. “Haiti is significantly worse off now than it was a year ago. The chaos is terrible, but the fact that it isn’t being perpetrated by the government but by the remnants of the previous government is actually an advance.”

He believes the maturation of Haitian civil society and its involvement in the political process give hope for the country’s future.