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The Haitian Beat

The busy streets of  Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The busy streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

There is no shortage of cruel irony in Haiti.

Take the cholera epidemic which came on the heels of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. It killed roughly 7,000 and sickened more than 530,000, but the evidence strongly suggests it wasn’t homegrown, but imported by United Nations peacekeeping troops from Nepal. Or take a different view and consider the nearly 100 UN personnel, including two Canadian police officers, who died in the earthquake while trying to help the impoverished country.

These ironies contribute to Haiti’s story, which is always one step forward, and at least three back—like an evil game of Mother May I or Snakes and Ladders, where the next move can stick the country and its 10 million people in the middle of a hurricane or sink them deeper into political turmoil. Anyone arriving for the first time is shocked by how everything—with the exception of the weather and the spread of disease—moves at a snail’s pace.

The accepted antidote for help-conscious outsiders—at least those with a good grip on reality—is to lower expectations and focus on taking small, but precise steps over a long period of time—say 200 years or longer. This was true before the earthquake, and it is true today, and few outsiders understand it more than Michel Martin and Jean-Marc Sasseville.

These two Canadian police officers were fortunate to survive the 7.0-magnitude quake that levelled communities, including huge swaths of the capital Port-au-Prince. What’s more, both officers returned to slug it out some more, primarily because they wanted to honour the service and sacrifice of two members of the RCMP who died in the rubble: Chief Superintendent Doug Coates and Sergeant Mark Gallagher.

The earthquake killed an estimated 250,000 people, injured thousands and caused upwards of $14 billion in damage. “I had lunch with Doug that day,” recalled Martin, who was Canadian police contingent commander at the time. “Doug had gone to a meeting with Jean-Marc… It (the earthquake) was so severe…I was in my office, getting ready to go out. At first it seemed pretty funny because it was a feeling I had never experienced—the vibration, the noise. But it did not stop and then everything started falling apart. There was a big crack on the floor and the entire building was opening up.”

A solar light hangs above a section of Cité Soleil. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

A solar light hangs above a section of Cité Soleil.

Martin slid under a table, and remembers scrambling out into choking dust. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but our headquarters was completely down, and after a few minutes we heard people crying and screaming. So we went to help and that is when we realized it is not there any more—it’s gone, but it all happened so fast and you are left in a big spin.” Coates was attending a meeting inside the headquarters when it fell.

Across town—in an apartment building—Gallagher was either unpacking or taking a few moments to relax after flying in from Montreal. He and two other UN policemen, along with several others in the multi-storey building, had no time to save themselves.

“Both of these men were very dedicated,” says Martin. “Doug was an inspiration for us all. He had a vision for this mission. He really cared about people… You went to war with this guy.”

Since 1993, hundreds of Canadian police have served in Haiti on various UN missions, experiencing everything from natural disasters and disease to heart-wrenching poverty and gang warfare. In March there were approximately 130 Canadian police serving with the UN Stabilization Mission, known by the French acronym MINUSTAH which has a current strength of  7,700 troops from 19 countries and 1,278 police (UNPOLS) from nearly 50 countries.

Susana Ferreira, a freelance journalist living in Port-au-Prince, notes that while the UN’s “military units have been haunted by some trouble over the years, the anger that much of the population may feel toward the foreign military hasn’t really extended to the UNPOL.” She says UNPOLs have worked to “reinforce the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH), and while the national police has improved, there’s still a staggering amount of work to be done. The PNH force is too small and too underserved, financially and logistically. And there’s not only the training of new recruits—thousands of which will be pouring into the police academy to fill the need—but also the specialized work with the justices of the peace, on gender-based crimes, on criminal investigations, and so on.”

Michel Martin (left) and Jean-Marc Sasseville. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Michel Martin (left) and Jean-Marc Sasseville.

Managed by the RCMP’s International Peace Operations Branch in Ottawa, the Canadian police contingent in Haiti is the largest deployment of Canadian police to international peace missions. Other deployments include Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan/South Sudan and the West Bank.

Most of the boots-on-the-ground work involves mentoring the PNH, where a typical day might include an eight-hour foot patrol through some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on the planet. In areas where there is a higher rate of violence, UNPOLS are shadowed by a well-armed FPU or Formed Police Unit, which often includes Jordanian, Nigerian and Bangladeshi troops with fully automatic weapons, a gas gun for crowd control and ceramic or Level 3 body armour.

The UNPOLS don standard police kit, similar to the gear worn on the streets of downtown Toronto or Regina. However, the PNH and UNPOLS—not the FPUs—are the ones who do the talking; sitting down with community leaders and assessing security concerns. “It is sometimes difficult to gauge who the criminals are,” says Ottawa Police Constable Aaron Reichert who began his tour last October by patrolling one of the city’s most crime-ridden IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. “A lot of the problem in the camps is that everybody lives in tents which offer no protection against someone who wants to cut their way in and steal, rape or murder. It leaves people with an enormous lack of security.”

Still, some of the biggest concerns expressed to UNPOLS have nothing to do with crime. “These camps have 30,000 or 40,000 people in them,” adds Reichert. “There are no real bathroom facilities, so sanitation is a big issue, so is the lack of food and the difficulty they have in accessing clean water.”

A hillside neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

A hillside neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince.

What’s amazing, says Reichert, is the people are always smiling. “You come here and you meet people living in tents—and it’s the rainy season—pouring rain like you wouldn’t believe. It soaks in on their tent—into their mattress and their blankets. And you meet them the next morning while on patrol and they are there with a smile on their face, happy to see us.”

The reputation Canadian police enjoy here goes largely unnoticed at home because Haiti itself keeps falling off the radar—victimized by its own slow recovery and withering international sympathy. What’s also not well known is the amount of volunteer work performed by Canadian UNPOLS. Some have raised thousands of dollars to build or support orphanages or send kids to school. One of the orphanages is now dedicated in memory of the two officers killed in the earthquake. Standing behind these efforts are family members, friends and whole communities back home.

MINUSTAH’s top cop—the police commissioner in Haiti—is also Canadian. He is RCMP Assistant Commissioner Marc Tardif who arrived a month after the earthquake, and spent his first year as the mission’s deputy commissioner, helping to rebuild the UN police infrastructure and re-establish operations.

Tardif believes progress is being made, describing it as a “remarkable evolution in some respects” given what the country has experienced. Indeed, for many Haitians—caught up in the daily grind of trying to find work, shelter, food or water—the quake seems like ancient history. There are no hard statistics, but unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent or higher and homelessness is rampant. But despite the lack of work and suitable shelter, Haitians are remarkably resourceful. A transmission may fall out of a truck on one of the congested streets, but by evening the driver has fixed it himself and moved on.

“The earthquake was unbelievable in terms of having set back any progress that was made,” observed RCMP Commissioner Robert Paulson who visited in March. “But the quake seems to have been put behind everybody. You see it in the same-old-same-old Haiti with people trying to build some supporting infrastructure and some reliable institutions and I think the justice and security sector is so important to balancing that out.”

RCMP Staff Sergeant Richard Martel at one of the orphanages where police and other Canadians volunteer regularly. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

RCMP Staff Sergeant Richard Martel at one of the orphanages where police and other Canadians volunteer regularly.

Throughout the country, UNPOLS maintain a permanent or part-time presence in nearly 180 commissariats. There and in the IDP camps their main job is to support the PNH by ensuring the rule of law is applied. Every day is an eye-opener, but many Canadian UNPOLS see their 12-month tour as an experience that should benefit not only the PNH, but their own careers and communities back home.

“There are consequences also,” explains Reichert. “It is tough to leave your loved ones for a year, but you see things you would never see back home. That is a positive and a negative. You see shocking things every day, but it will be the experience you want it to be, and you do have the opportunity to help people.”

While the rubble has been cleared from the battered streets of the capital and other communities, there are chilling reminders of the earthquake—from ruins to empty lots. The extreme poverty also remains as does a serious lack of infrastructure and basic human necessities. However, more market stalls are springing up and there are grocery stores with armed guards in the parking lot and food on the shelves. “The poverty is intense,” adds Paulson, “but looking at the people they seem like they are getting on.” Still, it is against a backdrop of old ironies, everything from the daily sight of schoolchildren emerging from shacks wearing neatly pressed uniforms to stoic young women waiting in a cloud of dust at an outdoor beauty parlour.

A roadside vendor with his supply of lumber. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

A roadside vendor with his supply of lumber.

Add too the promising blue and white minimum-security detention centre Canada helped build in the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets. The groundbreaking occurred three years ago, and four months after the earthquake the Canadian government committed $4.4 million to speed up construction. However, as of April it still sat shimmering like a mirage; its cells empty, its cement walls baking under the blazing sun while officials work to resolve some unspecified issues pertaining to how it will be run.

The irony is found just outside the walls where throngs of Haitians hash it out at a market in a swirl of diesel fumes, trying to dodge a well-meaning UN motorcade streaming out of the jail like rabbits on a run. It is hard to say how many of those same people are aware of the fact that the jail will offer regular meals, clean water, a bed and toilets—far more than what Haitians are used to on the streets or in the sweltering patchwork of overcrowded and dangerous IDP camps.

Still, the jail and the new approach to law and order are seen as steps towards bringing stability to a country that needs to reduce pressure on its overcrowded prisons and establish more humane forms of incarceration. The new jail’s construction and the renovation of other detention centres are part of a larger commitment, strongly supported by Canada, to help reform Haiti’s corrections system, the justice sector and the PNH. Statistics show that while the rate of incarceration is less than what other Caribbean countries are experiencing, its prisons are among the most crowded in the world. The so-called “preventative detention rate” (people jailed without charge or conviction) is 70 to 80 per cent.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at the national penitentiary, Prison Civile de Port-au-Prince, which one journalist described as being “straight out of a Mad Max film.” It was estimated that nine out of 10 inmates (out of a pre-earthquake prison population of 4,500) were never convicted of a crime.

Youths and an infant find shade in one of the internally displaced persons camps. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Youths and an infant find shade in one of the internally displaced persons camps.

Of course, all of them, including murderers and rapists, spilled into the city during the earthquake, and many of the worst-of-the-worst returned to old neighbourhoods where they pillaged, raped and murdered some more, renewing fear and outrage among residents and a whole lot more work for the under-strength PNH.

Many of the hardcore criminals are back in jail (others were lynched). Hit hardest were those with the least advantage: people trying to carry on despite having nothing or very little in the way of food, clothing or health care, all of them living on the edge. Many begin their day in the early hours—before sunrise—quietly picking their way along dark streets, instinctively avoiding open sewers, gaping potholes, mudslides and vehicles without brakes or running lights. Most are women, many pregnant, calmly clinging to the side of a crowded tap-tap (commuter truck) or deftly balancing a heavy load on their head.

They are also the barefooted kids making their own fun on the foul, sharp edge of Cité Soleil, one of the poorest, most densely populated and crime-choked communes in the Western Hemisphere. Here, against a backdrop of rusty, weather-worn shacks, pigs grunt and root for morsels among layers of rotting garbage while a boy flies a homemade kite against an ocean breeze. Beneath the transparent flyer—held together with straws and plant sap—a dozen kids scrum Ottawa Police Constable Dave Brennan as he pumps up a volleyball.

Brennan is 10 months into his 12-month tour, one of 20 UNPOLS operating from a detachment next to Cité Soleil. He came here because he wanted to help. “As Canadians we are good at giving somehow. I figured my way was to deploy outside Canada, to a place that needed it, and Haiti was the mission that was available.”

Canadian police officers receive their UN medal during a ceremony in March. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Canadian police officers receive their UN medal during a ceremony in March.

Months later he finds himself in a “completely different world,” working among a population that for the most part lacks enough education to understand there is a better way. “They see us more as—well, some will call us the occupation. Others are quite willing to take our help…”

Since 2006, more than 3,460 Haitians, including 413 women, have graduated from the seven-month basic training program at the Haitian Police Academy. In March, more than 160 officers were receiving the advanced six-month training program designed for mid-level HNP. Training runs the gamut from crowd control to shooting to management training aimed at gender-based violence to crime scene management. It is followed by 12 months of “field” training when graduates take what they have learned and apply it to the street, with mixed results.

Still deep in Cité Soleil, at the end of a dirt road crowded by shacks, Brennan and the team leader of the local commissariat, Montreal policeman Michel Dallaire, chat with the kids while Brennan finishes with the volleyball.

Many of Cité Soleil’s estimated 200,000 inhabitants arrived from the countryside, hoping to find a better life in the city. Instead, they found a slum and many turned to crime for survival or gangs for protection. “It’s a high-crime area—daily car-jackings—we find two or three murdered bodies a week…sometimes more, usually by shotgun,” explains Brennan. “Just about anybody who is willing to hold a gun can become a gang member.”

With all this, it may come as a surprise that Haiti does not own the highest homicide rate in the Caribbean—that title belongs to Jamaica which has the third highest murder rate in the world behind Iraq, Venezuela, El Salvador and Honduras. Haiti is further down the list.

When asked to comment on whether they see any significant change taking place in the communities they patrol with the PNH, one UNPOL said he could not see any improvement. “The size of MINUSTAH—the UN and the bureaucracy involved—just slows that process right down and so it is very hard to see tangible change.” The same UNPOL, however, reported that streets are cleaner—no more mountains of trash—and more kids in school.

Children gather near a UN police vehicle in Cité Soleil. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Children gather near a UN police vehicle in Cité Soleil.

Outside of Cité Soleil—on a congested street corner—a little girl with crooked teeth and white braids in her hair stands with her back against a crumbling wall, slowly dissolving a mouthful of popcorn while contemplating her next move on her way home from school. There are no traffic lights—no walk signals or policemen, just a couple of teenage boys in the middle of it, dodging bumpers and fenders, trying to make scratch cleaning windshields. Less than 35 per cent of the children who enter primary school will complete their grades. Parents place a high value on schooling, and while public education is free few families can afford uniforms and textbooks.

No one knew it then, but within a month of that girl standing on the corner, the country’s president, Michel Martelly, a former performer with the stage name Sweet Micky, was flown to Miami to undergo surgery for a pulmonary embolism. While there, busloads of armed and camouflaged Haitians—many of them former military—forcefully entered the grounds of Haiti’s parliament. “Mon ami…the situation is at the breaking point,” offered Martin. “Next step announced today by the PM to the justice minister and chief of police is to take action against any further demonstration like this. Gulp! Lets wait and see…hope these guys (the rogue army) will use their judgement…not their weapon.”

The beat continues—one step forward, three back.

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