It’s a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill described Russia this way, but he just as easily could have been talking about Haiti. It is difficult for Haitians, much less visitors, to figure out what is going on. UN troops roll their tanks through Cité Soleil and fire their machine guns hoping to kill gang members but the bullets more often find innocent people. The young man above is on crutches because his leg was shot off. His look-a-like brother is also on crutches having nearly lost his leg to a bullet.
Some of the gangs run kidnapping rings. We’ve heard that they share a cut of the proceeds of the ransoms with UN soldiers who look the other way as the victims are brought into a holding house in the slum. Perhaps this would explain why UN soldiers in their tanks watched as an American was kidnapped in front of them last year. Or maybe the alleged anti-Americanism of some of the troops, who hail from places like Jordan and Sri Lanka, is the reason. But then occasionally, UN soldiers are killed by gunfire from Soleil. Some Haitians refer to the UN troops as tourists, whose main interest is in making connections with local girls.
Common wisdom is that hostages are released after a ransom is paid, as was the case with our Haitian friend Paul a few of weeks ago. But then a couple days later, the same gang killed a 21-year-old girl after a $4,000 was paid for her release.
And the gangs, what’s their deal? Some people say they are just common criminals with a criminal’s motive of profit. Others say that they are loyalists of Aristide who want to destabilize the government and are calling for his return. Then others say they are secretly supplied with guns and money by right wing enemies of Aristide. Some left wing publications refer to the gangs as community organizers. The UN troops are the real villains they say. The only reason John can go into Cité Soleil safely—if you don’t count the random UN bullets—is because he is accompanied by someone who has a good relationship with the gangs. Plus he is providing much needed medical care. Then there’s the view that the young men who make up the gangs have no other alternatives in Haiti. They are hungry and angry because they know the way the rest of the world lives.
It’s hard to figure and hard to predict too. Who would think that a well-regarded film festival held in Jacmel, this past weekend, a concert fronted by Wyclef Jean, would make a tour of Cité Soleil and some of the other slums? But that’s exactly what’s going to happen later this month. A truck carrying a 15-foot-tall screen will make its way to Port-au-Prince and beginning December 11, will show films dealing with issues that face the audiences—AIDS, crime, domestic violence, and child slavery—while entertaining people too. In the midst of hunger, disease, and violence, people will get to go to the movies. For lives that are unremittingly hard and painful, this may seem like frivolity. “Life is so fragile here,” said one young man. “You go to sleep not knowing if you will wake to see another day.” But as Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat said, “Sometimes it’s that one moment that flips things. It can be pretty incredible and could flip the way you look at the world.”