February 4, 2006
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ? Michelet Etienne was kicking a soccer ball around the
warren of cinderblock hovels where he lives when a U.N. patrol thundered by and
gunmen leaped from their hiding places to spray it with bullets.
When the shooting was over, the 12-year-old lay bleeding and unconscious amid
piles of garbage and potholes filled with fetid water. A stray bullet had blown
out part of his skull and severed his spinal cord, rendering his skinny legs
“I can’t bring my feet together,” the listless child whimpered in the crowded
recovery ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital a week later. “I can’t move my feet.”
Like hundreds of other hapless bystanders over the last year, Michelet was
caught in the crossfire between gunmen and besieged peacekeepers, an
increasingly dangerous fact of life for the 2.5 million Haitians doomed to the
teeming slums of this capital.
With the approach of Tuesday’s elections, the first since President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled an armed rebellion two years ago, pressure has
mounted on U.N. forces to break the gangs’ stranglehold on the city. The
crackdown has accelerated the deaths and injuries.
Aristide loyalists claim that some of the casualties are victims of
trigger-happy peacekeepers in league with corrupt Haitian police. Diplomats
call the gunmen common criminals who are trying to protect their drug- and
gun-running operations from the United Nations force, which is made up of more
than 9,000 soldiers and police from three dozen countries, mostly in Latin
America and Asia.
It used to be that most of the shooting victims came from a couple of trouble
spots, slums such as Cite Soleil and Bel Air, said Ali Besnaci, a French
physician who heads the trauma clinic run by Doctors Without Borders at St.
“Now the problem has spread all over,” he said.
Of the more than 300 gunshot victims treated at St. Joseph’s in the last six
weeks, at least half were women, children and elderly, clearly not combatants
in the city’s street-by-street clashes, Besnaci said.
In December, Doctors Without Borders’ two downtown emergency units treated 220
people with bullet wounds, 26 of those in a single, violent day after
Christmas. Among the victims were a 15-month-old and a 77-year-old. Since the
aid group arrived here 13 months ago, its volunteer surgeons have treated
nearly 2,500 people.
“It’s terrible. It’s simply unacceptable,” Besnaci said as he visited the
bedsides of the maimed, laid out in rows of gurneys and covered with stained
He appealed to Haitian police and the U.N. mission, known by its French acronym
MINUSTAH, to be more mindful of the risks to bystanders as troops seek control
of the city.
The victims’ stories reflect an atmosphere of seething tension and fraying
When Jean-Rony Francois arrived for work at the Acierie d’Haiti steel mill
three weeks ago, he said, gunmen were shooting at Jordanian U.N. troops from
behind a factory wall. The Jordanians returned fire.
“I didn’t see who was firing. I was inside. But the bullets came from the
direction of MINUSTAH,” the 22-year-old recalled. Struck twice by shots that
penetrated the walls, he lost the use of his right arm and both legs. “When
they were done firing, they just took off.”
Residents of the capital’s most overcrowded and impoverished areas say their
need to work compels them to wade into the middle of such shootouts, which
John Lumera, 35, who made a living selling lottery tickets, was shot in the
leg. The wound became gangrenous and his limb had to be amputated. Now his four
children have no means of support.
“I don’t know why they were shooting,” he said. “It seemed to be at random. I
couldn’t see anyone they [the U.N. troops] were firing on, but I was flat on
Human rights monitors contend the foreign troops are overreacting to Haitian
government complaints that they have failed in the two years they’ve been here
to disarm the gangs and bring security to the urban war zones. The
international force has lost 13 of its members to violence and accidents during
“MINUSTAH soldiers seem to have lost their cool since four of their associates
were killed since late December,” said Pierre Esperance, head of the National
Human Rights Defense Network.
Pro-Aristide activists insist the civilians are victims of a conspiracy to
eliminate critics of the international community’s attempts to stabilize Haiti.
“The job of MINUSTAH is to silence the majority of Haitians who want Aristide
back,” said Jean-Yvon Kernizan, head of the September 30 Foundation, a New
York-based exile group named for the 1991 date of Aristide’s first ouster from
power. “They’re eliminating part of the population to satisfy another, the
elite. Where else could that happen without the whole world crying out? Only in
Juan Gabriel Valdes, a Chilean who is the top U.N. official here, says his
mission is damned if it confronts the gunmen and damned if it doesn’t.
While supporters of Aristide’s deposed Lavalas movement claim Haitian police
and the peacekeepers have carried out political killings, residents and
merchants of the capital have repeatedly protested the U.N.’s failure to disarm
what they say are no more than a few hundred gangsters.
“MINUSTAH is accused of not acting and of acting too much,” Valdes said.
U.N. mission spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona disputed victims’ claims that
peacekeepers fire indiscriminately.
“The rules of engagement are very strict. They are really trying to be very
careful,” he said.
Western diplomats and senior U.N. officials say MINUSTAH has sought to revise
its methods in the face of mounting civilian casualties.
Before his death last month, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot, the
mission’s Brazilian commander, Lt. Gen. Urano Teixeira Da Matta Bacellar,
ordered those patrolling Cite Soleil to remove the .50-caliber guns from their
armored personnel carriers because they were too powerful, a senior envoy said.
He attributed the rising toll among bystanders to gangs’ challenging
peacekeepers. The troops are getting in the way of the gangs’ drug deals, arms
trading and kidnapping schemes, he said. More than 200 people have been
kidnapped in the last two months alone.
Doctors Without Borders treats all comers to its clinics for free, regardless
of any involvement in the bloodshed. The doctors say that at least half the
nearly 2,500 shooting and stabbing victims they have treated were bystanders;
many of the rest were probably participants in the fighting.
“They sometimes tell a different story once they get here,” said British
anesthesiologist Rachael Craven, indicating a muscular young man with a scarred
chest and a gang insignia necklace.
The patient she referred to, 23-year-old Santil Alexandre, recently presented
himself to a triage unit in Cite Soleil, the most violent of the slums, telling
medics that he had been shot. After being transferred to St. Joseph’s, he told
authorities there that the circular wound in his leg was the result of an