In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Haiti: Not at war, yet a conflict zone

Haiti is not at war, yet it is widely recognised as one of the world’s conflict zones. This is the only non-warring state on earth which requires UN peacekeepers, 8000 of them in fact, to provide a measure of stability. In a country suffocated by poverty and decimated by violence, some places are no go zones for the Haitian police force and aid agencies. UN soldiers patrol these areas in armoured vehicles, and in tanks, with machine guns trained on the inhabitants.

Consider Cité Soleil, the worst slum in the western hemisphere. Built on the salty marsh lands adjacent to Port-au Prince's international airport, it is home to 1 million people, living in squalid conditions amidst a drifts of sewage and rotting rubbish.

There were 100 kidnappings a month here in the earlier months of 2007, more in the later months of the year and according to the United Nations, almost half of all the girls in some of the areas worst affected by gang violence have been raped. According to the UN, similar levels of kidnapping and sexual violence occur in war ravaged parts of the world, including Sudan and the Congo.

From 2004, when democratically elected president John Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a coup d’Etat, gangs have ruled Cité Soleil and other Haitian shanty towns. Initially, these militia were formed to fight the new regime and they used kidnapping and threats of rape to extort money, which they used to buy weapons. The Chimères also known as the ghosts of Cité Soleil are a notable example.

Criminal gangs have also risen up In Haiti, using similar tactics. Against a background of poverty and unemployment, some gangs have neither political nor criminal motives. For them, gang membership is status. They perpetrate violence simply because they are bored, or because rape and violence, to them, are power.

Whatever the motive, Haitian gangs use violence to intimidate, to spread fear and unrest, and to control the population. It works. Between 2004 and 2007, they were the authority in many parts of the capital.

I am not unduly concerned about my safety in Haiti, because foreign nationals are rarely targets of gang violence. I saw worse epidemics of sexual assault when I worked in South Africa and in South Africa, I lived with the threat of armed violence every day.

There are also some signs of improvement: the UN stabilisation mission has been hailed a success with the arrest of several gangs members and the disarmament of many armed groups. This has made the area safe enough for aid agencies to begin work. Médecins Sans Frontières, Compassion International and Oxfam, to name a few, now have programmes in Port-au-Prince. They are housed behind high walls, topped with barbed wire, certainly, but they operate none-the less.

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