In January, three short months ago, Cité Soleil, a slum of more than 200,000 and unarguably the worst part of a brutally poor country, was a war zone, unsafe for the Haitian police or U.N troops, much less white skinned, unarmed NGO workers. Well, it’s still dangerous for the police and UN—crumbled blue and white remnants are all that remain of the destroyed police stations and the mustachioed Jordanian troops sit causally in tanks on the perimeter of the place—but we were able to tour parts of the wretched slum—I know “wretched slum” is redundant but I’m trying to indicate the true horribleness of the place; also my thesaurus has no synonyms for slum, so I’ll be over using this word—in an air conditioned bus with some visiting Americans on Thursday.
Our host has a big presence in the slum, running schools and feeding programs at seven different sites. He and his workers were able to enter Soleil, even during the bloodiest of times. He continues to have an agreement with the gang leaders, who control the nine zones of the slum and have an edgy peace among themselves. John asked a couple of the gang leaders why there was violence before the February presidential election and afterwards, none. The first said that now that Rene Preval is president, they want to give him a chance to succeed and they have some hope for their futures. The second leader, an English-speaking, charlatan named Aaron who kept saying, “Trust me,” much in the manner of a loan shark, said that the gangs from the neighboring slum of Boston, who were backed by the anti-Artistide rich—this much I think is true—were the ones coming in the neighborhood and causing all the violence and since the election, they don’t come around anymore. The gangs in Soleil are sympathetic to Aristide, but surprisingly the first leader said that it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing if he returned from exile in South Africa as violence could ensue.
I want to describe some of the positive programs we saw in Soleil, but first the negative and, unfortunately, it overwhelms. We walked down a narrow path between blackened, tin-roofed shanties, children following us. An old man sitting on the ground sees John’s scrub top and holds out his hand to him. It is covered with a fungal infection, caused and encouraged by the filth the man lives in. Another man is sitting in a child’s car seat.
The path ends at the ocean—yes, irony of ironies, the most decrepit place in Haiti is beachfront property—with garbage, mounds of it, serving as the beach. Beyond the garbage are piles of seashells coated with so much dirt, they don’t look real. A couple of porous, wooden fishing boats are pulled up on the garbage. Pigs are rooting everywhere. We pick our way carefully back away from the ocean. We come upon a muddy, garbage strewn field with more pigs reigning supreme. The field is ringed by shacks with their tin, cardboard, and concrete look absolutely uninhabitable. I hear crying coming from a shanty. If a sick child lives there, I don’t see how recovery is possible. We stare at the area trying to look casual, like we’re not seeing the most terrible site of our lives. “Unbelievable,” says one man and it is the only word for it. How can it be that people live like this in the 21st century?
A cloud of children is following us, encircling us. They are small and dirty. More than a few boys are wearing no clothes at all. They look at us expectantly and grab for our hands. One of our group races up and down the street with the children following them, screaming in delight. Some things remain the same.
We are going to tour a school. As of the night before, this day preceding the legislative elections, was declared a national holiday. In a country of low employment, we’re not only going to take off one day for the election, here’s two for you. But this is how we found ourselves free to accompany the tour we are on. We had gone to the clinic and discovered that only the nurses were there, who hadn’t heard on the television that everything would be closed today. After having some Cokes with them and conducting a brief English lesson, we left and joined up with our host.
Though schools were closed too, one of the seven sites held class so that we would have something to tour. The children from pre-school to high school in a dozen classrooms in the three story building sang loudly and proudly, welcoming us to their school. Haitians, even the boys, aren’t shy about singing. Besides the learning that goes on, the children and seniors in the area are served a hot meal. If you’ve made it to senior status in Haiti, you’ve really overcome some odds; these folks seemed uniformly joyful. Another of our host’s programs is sponsoring some wayward youth—i.e. former gang members—in vocational school. It was these young men and their leader who gave us their opinions about the cease fire in Soleil. they are learning refrigeration, auto mechanics, building, and electronics.
The last project we toured were rows of houses constructed by our host’s program. These neat little three-room houses with wooden front doors, will be given away by lottery to a lucky few. Lots of people still live in Soleil, but John can tell not as many are here as in the past. Great numbers of people fled when the slum was in lockdown mode, and they haven’t returned.
So good work is going on in Cité Soleil. But it comes at a price. Payoffs, corruption, theft, and personal risk are some of the costs. Close to a dozen workers and individuals involved with the program have been killed over the years. One of them Emmanul Dred Wilme, was considered a notorious gang leader by authorities and he was gunned down a few months ago police and UN bullets finding him. Inside Soleil, Dred was a folk hero and the main road into the slum has been renamed after him. One man’s terrorist is another man’s revolutionary.
As we leave Cité Soleil, we pass the rare building that isn’t pockmarked with big bullet holes, as the police and UN feeling under siege, fired indiscriminately, with the gangs responding in kind. How many innocent people were killed? Lots of other innocent people die prematurely every day in less dramatic ways. We salute our host for helping all of these people through his work in Cité Soleil.