It’s been almost 5 months since the earthquake, and tensions are rising in Port-au-Prince. In a recent trip to Champs de Mars, which is the tent city located in front of the Presidential Palace, these tensions were abundantly clear. Because of almost constant protests against President Preval’s actions (or lack thereof) after the earthquake, both local and UN police have become more vigilant in stopping violent gatherings before they begin.
For instance, on the day that I took these pictures I had driven Pinotage downtown to take an updated picture of the crumbling Palace, but found the street adjacent to it (which is the epicenter for many of the protests) barricaded by UN forces. The night before there had been gun shots in the tent city there, and the international aid community is becoming increasingly worried about the safety of their workers.
This all comes on the heals of new reports that the anger, which was usually directed toward the government, is now being turned towards the organizations providing aid. During separate instances around the city, one aid organization’s car was stoned, and an aid worker was pulled from a car at knife-point. Both got away unharmed. There are also unconfirmed reports of more aid workers getting kidnapped, but details on those incidences aren’t typically released.
In response to reports like these, and the fact that all the dangerous criminals were released from the PAP prison when it collapsed on January 12th, the UN has decided to increase the number of UN police officers by almost 700. According to the UN, they will come to make a “sustainable and visible” presence here in the capital, which may sound like a good idea for security, but you can be pretty sure it’s going to piss off a bunch of Haitians who aren’t really cool with the idea of being treated like criminals.
The U.S. Military has also drawn down their forces to just 500, which some officials at the embassy are slightly nervous about. When talking to locals here, there is a slight air of disinterest in the UN presence. While it bothers them, it’s almost a given that you’ll drive by the light blue hats on your way to the bank, or wherever you’re going.
But when the U.S. troops were here, there was a sense of respect among the people that you didn’t see before. The U.S. troops seemed less like occupiers, and more like armed assistance, as the government had asked for their help after the earthquake. The UN never asked for the government’s permission, and they have been here for years. U.S. troops weren’t always respectful of the local population, and they also cost the U.S. over $500 million after just 3 months of their work, but there was some comfort in knowing that they were keeping a relative calm over the city.
So it’s a culmination of these events, and the fact that Haitians are getting sick of hearing that help is on the way while the rains flood their tents every night, that are slowly spiraling the security situation out of control. Elections are scheduled for August, which could potentially mark a breaking point.
But the people living in the tent city at Champs de Mars face these security issues everyday. While kidnappings are a problem with the international aid community, it’s typically Haitians that are taken hostage instead of foreigners. Crime and assaults (especially against women) are rampant in the tent cities as well, as there will never be enough police to constantly snake through the practically endless rows of tents. And while sitting in the shadow of the Presidential Palace seems like the best place to get assistance after the earthquake, aid here is sparse, if not non-existent.
So as I left the barricaded Palace, I ventured into the tent city just across the street to see if the conditions had changed. While many people sat staring stoically into space, I passed by a group of kids that had found a piece of rope and had decided to have some fun. I got off Pinotage and asked if I could take some photos. They said “No”, but I did it anyways…just kidding.
So in this city square that seemed to be such a symbol of lingering problems and unhappiness, these kids had found something to smile about. They had filled the void created by angry-looking UN troops on one side, and terrible living conditions on the other, and just had a good time. You couldn’t help but just watch and smile, as joy in the eyes of the people here is, at times, hard to come by.
And as I sat there and took about a million pictures, a HUGE Haitian man wearing a bright yellow sleeveless shirt and carrying a gallon of gasoline came up behind me and started yelling, “Hey Blanc, Blanc!” I turned around to see him staring at me, smiling ear-to-ear, and giving me the middle finger. I was confused. I asked him if he wanted me to take his picture, he said “No”, and after about another 30 seconds of me getting acquainted to him flipping me off, he decided he had made his point and walked away. I took my cue, and decided to leave as well.
So before I end this, I want to assure you that Jillian and I are making sure we are being safe and secure. We don’t typically drive at night, and we walk Olie around our complex which has a security guard at the gate at all times. While I’m a big believer in not letting the terrorists win by changing your lifestyle, I’ve made sure that I only go to places where I know exactly where I am, and how to get out quickly, if needed. Jillian has a driver when she is working, but when she goes to work she’s driven by ME! In my opinion you can’t be much safer than that.