Saturday, December 30, 2006

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....

No comments: