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Haiti: poverty – a breeding ground for violence in Cité Soleil

05-06-2009 Feature

With most gang leaders in jail, the violence that ravaged Cité Soleil between 2003 and 2007 has abated. But poverty fuels discontent, and the victims of violence remain one of the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00399    
Port-au-Prince. Mud cakes are being dried in the sun on the steps. Cite Soleil might be a less violent place today, but it is just as impoverished as before. Most people struggle to pay for food and water and many of them are forced to eat mud cakes mixed with butter and salt to quell their hunger.    
  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00296    
Port-au-Prince. A long-term resident of the slum called Cité Soleil, 83-year-old Elevanise was first caught in gangland crossfire in 1993, before stepping into harm's way again in 2004, when she was shot in the breast and the stomach.    
  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00341    
Port-au-Prince. Cité Soleil. Brice Osmer, who lost his arm in crossfire in 2005, walks home from church with his daughter.    
  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00402    
Port-au-Prince. Ninety per cent of children in Cite Soleil are too poor to go to school. Boredom leads to fights among street children and many go to bed hungry each night because their families can't afford food.    
  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00410    
Port-au-Prince. Roudeline and her three-year-old daughter, both victims of violence, sleep on slabs of concrete in Cite Soleil.    

 Fight! Fight! Fight!  

What caused a dozen street children to start pummelling the young girl is unclear. But within seconds word has spread that a fight is on. Hordes of children with matted hair and ragged clothes race to the scene, glad of anything to relieve the monotony of yet another day with nothing to do in Cité Soleil, the Haitian capital’s sprawling seaside slum. Weary parents pull their children away, leaving the shaken girl to escape.

This is a far cry from the days when families ran for cover from daily gun battles. A few years ago, Cité Soleil was one of the most dangerous and destitute places on earth, riven by a vicious gang war for control of the area. By contrast, today’s incident could have happened on any school playground across the world. Except that 90% of children in Cité Soleil are too poor to go to school.

UN troops have stabilized the security situation in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, and many gang members are either dead or behind bars. Nevertheless, violence still surrounds the 300,000 residents of Cité Soleil, fuelled by hunger and the frustration of trying to survive on less than a dollar a day.

The ICRC has been in Haiti since 1994 and in Cité Soleil since 2003. Rob Drouen, head of the ICRC delegation, explains: “Haiti is a fragile State, where armed gangs can be used to stir up trouble for political reasons and abject poverty fuels discontent.”

 An unlucky grandmother  

I sidestep the brawling children and enter the home of a woman who has suffered more than most. A long-standing resident of Cité Soleil, 83-year-old Elevanise Tidor was first caught in gangland crossfire in 1993. In 2004 she stepped into harm’s away again, when she was shot in the breast and stomach. As she undoes her faded dress to show the scars from her mastectomy, she tells me she was later hit by a car and now can hardly walk.

Confined to a sparsely furnished corrugated iron shack, she worries about how her children and grandchildren are going to make ends meet.

“My body took the bullets, but my family has been hit the hardest,” she says. “I can’t work or do anything for them. My grandchildren often go to bed crying with hunger.”

 Repairing the damage  

That the victims of violence can suffer for years after the event is well-known. But in Cité Soleil the suffering can last a lifetime.

With the help of the ICRC, a group of victims of the violence is aiding fellow sufferers. In 2007, Pierre Wilber founded REVICIS (Regroupement des victimes de Cité Soleil) after gang members beat him up for political reasons. REVICIS has already identified 300 victims and is now trying to get funds for social, psychological and legal help.

“There are so many social problems in Cité Soleil that everyone here is a victim,” he says. “But we give priority to people visibly scarred by violence, because they have suffered a double blow.”

Brice Osmer is one of the rare victims who can still work. In April 2005, he was caught in a shoot-out between UN troops and gang members. He was hit three times and lost an arm. Since t hen he walks the streets selling mobile phone time and bags of water.

“On a good day I earn a dollar, but it’s thanks to my wife who sells food from dawn to dusk that my children don’t starve.”

Other victims have no such support. In 2006, Roudeline Lamy (23) dropped her three-month-old baby when she was shot in the stomach. She still suffers from stomach pains, but the impact of the fall left her daughter paralysed from the waist down. Roudeline’s husband was killed by the gangs, and she sleeps on the concrete floor of a shack that floods every time it rains, reliant on the charity of friends and her faith that God will not abandon her.

With very few State services, God is all the poor can believe in. Two schools and one State hospital serve the ever-expanding population, with aid agencies and religious groups trying to plug the gap.

 The Red Cross response  

The ICRC operates throughout Cité Soleil, helping the poorest of the poor. There are no State ambulances, so Red Cross volunteers have been providing first aid and evacuating the sick and wounded since 2003. In 2004, at the height of the gang warfare, the Red Cross ensured that people had safe access to water. Previously, they had been risking their lives crossing frontlines to fill up their buckets.

Today, the ICRC works with the water board, maintaining and running 53 communal water points across Cité Soleil, turning them on for a couple of hours 20 days a month.

Prospere Borgelin works with the ICRC on its water project. He also works with other international organizations to improve living conditions in Ti-Haiti where he lives (Ti-Haiti is Creole for Petit Haiti, or Little Haiti).

Like other community leaders, he has seen the benefits of working closely with the humanitarian agencies and with the Brazilian troops from the UN stabilization mission responsible for security in Cité Soleil.

“The troops have brought security. Communities are beginning to organize themselves. We see the results in that roads are being built, rubbish collected and sewage removed,” he says.

At considerable personal risk, Borgelin has helped the UN and the Haitian police arrest gang members in his neighbourhood and continues to be vigilant.

Like many in Cité Soleil, he fears that the UN will pull out before the Haitian police are ready to take over and that the streets will again echo to the sound of gunfire.

“Misery,” he says, “breeds violence. And there’s still plenty of misery in Cité Soleil.”

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