It was International Water day so the Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers trucked in a tanker full of water to an orphanage not far from their base outside Port au Prince. The kids were divided up into boys and girls and then given a good scrubbing.
In this particular establishment there are - depending on who you ask - between 150 and 200 kids living here. There are 3 bedrooms. In one, 60 plus kids sleep, splayed all over the floor on thin reed mats.
Their kitchen consists of a corrugated metal roof supported by two pieces of wood. There's no running water and they cook by burning wood.
Their playground is a large field littered with debris - scraps of wood, plastic and metal - over which they run in bare feet so as not to ruin the one pair of shoes they have.
The next week I went back and gave out t-shirts and soccer balls - donated by the UN. I know it's not much but the soccer balls went over well.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
To avoid any misinterpretations, this next photo is not the Brazilians loading up to slaughter innocent civilians like some Left wing media outlets love to believe, but the Brazilians displaying ammunition found in a house near the gang base. And yes, all you naysayers, I was there when they arrived, entered the locked house and discovered the cache hidden in a closet and under a mattress.
I know it's late but, hey, some of us have to work you know. This next selection of photos were taken at the beginning of the year and marked the end of the gangs in the notorious slum of Cite Soleil. The UN troops moved in in force in the wee hours and surrounded a section known as Boston. At 2 am the noose began to close and after three hours of automatic gun fire, tracers searing the sky and flashbang grenades it was all over. The gangs either fled (some dressed as women it was rumoured) some went to ground and some were soon to be buried under the ground (it's hard to hide from snipers with high powered rifles and night vision scopes.)
In any case, three more operations were carried out in the two other major neighbourhoods, but in both cases, not a shot was fired. And now, months later, Cite Soleil has become the hot tourist spot for all the visiting dignitaries and all the Civil Affairs and Political Affairs hacks who rode their desks until all the work was done - "Look what we did," they seem to crow, posing for pictures with the troops that actually put their life on the line to get the job done. Sorry, I rant.
Anyway, as for me on the night on the operation, I was "embedded" with the troops - which means they locked me up in the base telling me it was too dangerous to go out in the dark. Fine, too hard to take pictures at night, anyway. When the sun rose, however, things changed. Unfortunately, it was still "too dangerous", according to the Brazilian public information soldier who was supposed to take care of me. I realized that to him, "take care" meant keep safe, whereas to me it means "get me in the shit and leave me there". In the end, I just walked out and ignored their fervent calls to return.
I walked up the main road, side stepping armoured personnel carriers and chatting with Haitians - no matter the situation, no matter how bad, there are always Haitians walking around, beats me where they feel they just have to get to.
Eventually, I reached a school newly acquired by the UN troops. In a strolled, looking around taking pictures as shots from really big guns rang out from the second floor. As it turned out, the troops did not think it was such a good idea for me to be there and so they forcibly loaded me into an APC and took me back to the base.
Well, when I got back I lost my nut. What the F was I doing here if I couldn't cover the operation? I yelled at the befuddled PIO soldier. He hummed and hawed and phoned some people and hummed some more. After an extended amount of chin rubbing he told me he'd get me into an APC that was doing patrols into newly "liberated" areas.
Fine, let's go.
Well he may be a shite PIO officer but he was a crafty bugger. Sure he got me into an APC, but damn me if we didn't drive around the perimeter and then park for 3 hours doing sweet F#$K all. I can't describe sitting scrunched up in a metal box on wheels with ten sweaty soldiers bored and frustrated. Well I could describe it but I'm sure you get the idea. It took calls all over the mission to get them to finally let me out. By that time I was fed up and once back at the base I walked off and didn't look back. And that's when I finally managed to get the shots that I'd hoped for. By the by, HQ in NY was overjoyed with the photos - "Best I've seen in my 11 years with the UN," the head of the photo department in NY said. I wonder what he'd think if he knew how many rules I broke in order to get them.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Saturday, December 30, 2006
This isn't an exciting or for the most part deadly post, but the photos are nice - if I do say so myself - and the story is interesting if a little sad.
The organization I now work for is in the midst of making a video to show what our department does. Most of the video consists of people a desks looking at computers. For my part, I went out looking to show a slice of Haiti - something real and everyday. What I found was photogenic and saddening.
Where once all the houses in Haiti were built in a beautiful "gingerbread" style of wood with gables and tall shuttered windows to allow in the Caribbean breeze, now, mainly because there's no wood left (2 per cent tree cover in the entire country) the houses are built of cinder blocks hand made from Haitian concrete made from Haitian gravel.
While I was on the shoot, I talked with an old man. He looked old anyway. He might have been 45 but he looked 20 years older. After I spoke to him, I understood why he looked so old and worn. For ten years he has worked digging gravel and sand, 5 am to 5 pm for 25 Gourds a day. Now so you know, the current exchange rate is 38 Gourds to the US dollar. For 25 Gourds you can buy..... ummmmmmm, sorry, finding it hard to think of what you can buy for less than a buck. Definitely not enough to feed his family of five kids.
It was and is a sad sorry. Not unusual. People working hard, sweating, growing old before their time for less than peanuts - the discarded shells of peanuts, ground to dust under the feet of those without morals or any desire other than to please themselves.
The part where it gets deadly is that workers die all the time from cave ins. In their zeal to make a buck they dig into the rock face, creating caves twenty, thirty feet down from the crest. And eventually those caves collapse under the weight and diggers die under that same weight. Crushed under the very substance that was keeping them alive.
And so it continued.
While people were screaming for action from the government and the UN, plans were in the making. President Preval was starting to realize that his popularity was plummeting because of all the insecurity and decided that it was time to take action. Or, as it was, decided that it was time to ask someone else to take action. And so, the UN was given the green light to start operations in Cite Soleil - Port au Prince's biggest slum and den of gangs and kidnappers.
To be honest, my frinds and I didn't go to Cite Soleil that day for any kind of excitement. We went because the day before, a UN armoured personel carrier had gotten stuck in a ditch. All the UN peacekeepers had evacuated the APC and the Haitians had shot out the tires and tried to set fire to it. We went in the next morning at 6:30 am to get pictures of Haitians playing on the APC. Instead, we walked - scuttled and ran, actually - into the biggest, longest gun fight I've ever covered.
For close to six hour the UN peacekeepers in their APCs traded fire with Haitian gang members. The gangs were terribly out gunned. For every shot that came in a thousand went out. And some of those shots out went out from their 30 mm canons that, from 15 feet away, can really rattle the ear drums.
The UN was stationed along the main road in Cite Soleil, making incursions now and then sealed up tight in their APCs, top mounted guns spewing hot lead and popping off tear gas. The gangs meanwhile played hide and seek, running through the warrens popping off a few shots then taking off before the UN snipers could get a bead on them.
Meanwhile, my friends and I were holed up, in abandoned homes and stores, trying to avoid testing the integrity of our bullet proof vests.
At one point we got silly and decided it would be a good idea to enter those self same warrens to see how the residents were putting up with the incursion. Well two of them were not doing well at all - lying in pools of their own blood, shot through the chest as they were. They both were young men who fit the "gang" mold. Granted all young men in Cite Soleil fit the "gang" mold. The rest of the people did exactly what we did - took cover and listened to the bullets rip through the tin roofs and ricochet off the cinder block walls.
When we emerged, the UN had pulled out and the main street was littered, litterally awash with bullet casings. Once it was clear that the UN wasn't coming back, the Haitians swarmed the street, collecting all the brass casings. At $5 Haitian (0.60 cents) a pound, it was easy money. So don't let anyone tell you nothing good comes from violence. But all kidding aside, once the clean up was over, the job of collecting the dead and injured. Five young men were brought to a communal area where women wailed and thrashed about calling on God and Jesus and all the powers that be to explain why this had to happen. Obviously they haven't been paying attention to what's been going on in the country and that they live smack dab in the same place where the kidnappers take their "charges" until payment is made.
It was quite surprising to see that the initial number of injured was quite low considering the magnitude of the shooting. Personally I saw only four people with minor wounds. Unfortunately, in these circumstances there will always be innocents that get hurt and killed. It's a fact we all accept, but it doesn't make it any easier to see a nine-year-old boy shot through the the leg or an old man with the track of a bullet across his scalp - deep enough to gouge out the skull but shallow enough not to touch the brain. An inch taller....