Saturday, December 30, 2006

The gravel pit

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.

A little payback

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....

Tis the season....

Well people, I know it has been a long time, but I think it will be worth the wait.

From my last post in August till just recently things have been rather quiet. I do have to say that I've changed jobs and returned to my favorite endeavor - taking pictures. In case I never mentioned I was working as the TV guy in Haiti for one of the two major news agencies in the world. Now, however, I'm the photographer for the biggest do good organization in the world. If I'm being a little vague it's only to protect the innocent and the grouchy but I'm sure you can figure it out if you think about it for a second or two.
In any case, the happy holiday season is always full of unexpected treats here in Haiti - demonstrations, kidnappings, riots and shoot outs. Oh joyous Ho Ho to all.

So I'll give you a recap of events up till now.
First of all, it's normal to spend heaps of money during Christmas. God knows life just wouldn't be the same without spending every last dime on gaudy ties and useless knick knacks for all the people we love. It's no different in Haiti. Except that most people here don't have a dime to begin with. And so, in good Haitian fashion, the naughty ones decided that the best way to make a little extra cash is to pick up people on the street at gun point and demand large sums of money to buy gifts with. Usually things went as planned, and although the sum usually went from exorbitant to paltry, people were returned home only a little worse for wear. There were occasions though, when things went seriously downhill. It is sad to say that sometimes the only box that the family would be opening would be a coffin to put their dead and mutilated relative in. It is a sad truth that more people die during Christmas than any other time of the year.

While the kidnappers concentrated on adults, Haitians complained and lamented, but continued on as best they could. Recently, however, the bad men (and boys not old enough to shave) decided that they could but a lot more gifts if they used children as leverage. In the past couple of months, children have been taken on their way to and from school. Most have made it home safe but sadly some haven't. I won't go into details but suffice it say that there would not be any open coffins at the funerals.

Now it's one thing to take able bodied men and women, but children is a whole other butter ball turkey. As a result, Haitians took to the streets demanding that the government and the UN did something to stop the insanity. In Haiti, as you may or may not know, when people want something, they don't just walk the streets waving placards and chanting slogans. They walk the streets waving placards and chanting slogans and throw rocks, light tires on fire and block traffic. It all came to a head a few weeks ago when the police had captured two men suspected of an attempted kidnapping. When word got out, people started gathering at the police station demanding that the police release the men so they could burn them in the street. It's a testament to the retrained Haitian police force that they refused the call for vigilante justice. If you recall, a year ago or so, the police weren't so restrained and executed three men suspected of being gang members and let the crowd chop them up with machetes. On this day, however, they showed some professionalism and planned an extraction of the two men. And so, amidst many screams and a rain of stones and bottles, the police loaded the men into a truck and raced away.

Of course, they had some international help. Just before the men were loaded into the car the UN lobbed a couple of tear gas grenades into the streets and the Haitian SWAT stormed in shooting their guns in the air and waving batons. Once the truck was clear, and most of the people had scattered, the remaining few started to rain rocks down on the police station and on any one in the streets wearing any kind of helmet. The irony of the people taking offence against the very ones they've been demanding take action, was not lost on me as I dodged rocks big enough to leave a serious dent in your brain pan. In the end, the big victim was the lone UN car parked up the street. I even told the UN police officer that he'd better move his car. But of course, he was stuck in the police station - he only semi safe place for him. As a result, when he was able to leave, his car was nothing but a smoking ruin.
There were some injured, and supposedly one dead, but to be honest, it was all surprisingly bloodless. Unfortunately, that was just the start.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bring on the Spirits

There's a saying in Haiti that 90 per cent of the people practice Christianity and 100 per cent practice Voodoo.

In the space of three weeks I attended two voodoo festivals, one in Seau D'eau, three hours from Port au Prince in the interior, with an impressive waterfall and the second in Plaine du Nord, in the, uh, north, featuring a mud bath. Covering any voodoo festival is interesting and exhausting. Along with all the practitioners, the ceremonies bring out the beggars, thieves and pickpockets. When your not taking pictures and trying not to fall in the water or mud, you're grabbing hands that are diving in your pockets and bags and threatening people with a death worse than any sacrifice. And there's always the smell. That is something beyond description that must be experienced to be understood.

More fun in the sun

Ah, well, another long absence. There's either too much going on leaving me no time to post or else there's nothing going on and nothing to post. In any case, as a quick update for all of you, Haiti remains an enigma and an impossible country to break down into manageable and understandable bites. Mostly things around the country are quiet and have been quiet since the elections back in February. There are, however, occasional piles of flaming shit that launch out of one cesspool or another, splatting on the face of those that think things are rosey.

Last week an entire neighbourhood of was forced to flee their homes because rival gangs were having it out. That in itself is not uncommon, but one gang decided that in retribution for some earlier grievance they would assassinate the families of members of the rival gang. Then one side or the other (and it makes no difference which, they're all fuckwits) decided to burn down peoples homes. The result was at least a thousand people loading whatever they could carry onto their heads and walking for hours to some safer place. 300 plus of these people, mostly women and children , ended up in a Baptist church compound. There is no food or water for them and no sanitary or cooking facilities, even if they had anything to cook or water to clean with. The people running the church claimed they called the government numerous times but received no responce. The Red Cross, World Food Program and Yele Haiti have all donated aid, but it takes more than they have to feed 300 plus people a day. I will be back there this week to see if anything has changed.

In Cite Soleil the gangs have decided that they've waited long enough for the new president to revitalise their neighbourhood and have called for Operation Baghdad to recomence. Three Brazilian peacekeepers were shot a few weeks ago when they foolishly decided to do a foot recon of an abandned neighbourhood school. The gangs figured the UN was trying to establish another base and were having none of it. Naturally a lively firefight broke out, leaving at least 5 civilians injured and at least one woman who was working at the market dead. Her daughter showed up shortly after I arrived on the scene. Needless to say, it was heartbreaking to watch the realization dawn on the daughters face that the motionless body on the ground was her mother.

And the day before yesterday, a family that owns a bakery a block for my apartment was ambushed in their car by two men on a motorcycle. The bastards simply rode up beside the family and opened up killing the 2 year old boy and fataly injuring the father. The mother survived with only minor injuries and aside from lifelong trauma, the daughter was uninjured. This all happened about a block and a half from my place on a road I regularly travel. Rumor has it, it was a retaliatory attack. Word has it that a year ago, the father decided to hire security guards for the front of his store to curb the incessant kidnappings that went on in the street in front of his place. At the time it was successful. Arrests were made and a few wannabe kidnappers were given a direct, do not pass go and collect $200 pass to the firey gates of hell. Success, I guess, is hard to measure in the Karma cup. Good for some is inevitably bad for others. And those who feel they've been wronged have a much longer memory. In this case, they waited a year, then served up their revenge ice cold.

And in the midst of all this, Mr Secretary general of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan, decides to stop in for a little visit. Due to plane troubles in New York, his two day tour was cut to one - which, for all our sakes, was a blessing. One day of security guards pushing us around was more than enough, thank you. So what came of this visit? No really, can someone please write me and tell me what the fuck it was all about? I mean, really, you would think that with all the shit storms brewing in the middle east and the rest of the world that the head of our Global Peacekeeping organization would have more pressing concerns than traipsing off to a country that has neither nuclear arms, chemical weapons, rockets, tanks or any ambition to invade anywhere (not that they could even if they wanted to). I'm trying to come up with some pithy line to sum it all up, but I'm at a loss. Consider this an interactive blog and you can finish it off however you see fit.