By Ansel Herz
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 20 (IPS) – Under a beating sun in the grassy field where two U.N. helicopters landed in Grand Goave last week, 19-year-old Benson Blanc moved his hands as if rapid-firing a gun into the ground in front of him and made a “tok-tok-tok-tok” sound. This is how the soldiers opened fire, he said.
Residents of this quiet seaside town an hour west of Port-Au-Prince were awoken at about 1 a.m. on Nov. 10 by the sound of helicopters flying low overhead. A curious crowd amassed around the aircrafts.
One of the helicopters had mechanical trouble and had to make an emergency landing, said U.N. spokesperson Sophie Boutaud de la Combe. To lighten the load on the damaged helicopter, the Chilean crew moved white boxes of supplies into the other helicopter for several hours.
She also said, in a radio interview broadcast here in the capital city, that troops only fired once into the air in attempt to disperse the crowd. They had called for backup from the local platoon of Sri Lankan U.N. troops.
“When the backup came they started shooting, the population ran away and hid behind the bushes,” Blanc said. “Their chief, Mr. Rodriguez, said that he is not playing with nobody’s ass. He said if anybody wants to cross the field they need to tell him first or he’ll shoot them.”
Over a week later, Rinvil Jean Weldy, 50, is still nursing a bulging wound on his right shoulder. He can’t use his right arm much because of the pain, as he tends to his family’s small beachside home. He said he’s a health worker who has worked for the Haitian government and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
“I was home then I heard a strange noise and I saw people running,” Weldy told IPS. “I wanted to give my help in case something bad happened. The crowd was too close to the helicopters so I wanted to move away. That’s when they opened fire and hurt me. I want justice and reparations.”
Haitians interviewed Sunday in Grand Goave said U.N. troops, known by their acronym MINUSTAH, fired several rounds into the ground at around 5 a.m. They said the soldiers would not let anyone, including farmers who wanted to reach the beach to go fishing, cross the field. A piece of a bullet struck Weldy, who was rushed to the hospital by Haitian police.
“When they saw the crowd getting big, they shot on the field,” said Louis Natacha, a woman who lives nearby. “There would have been more victims if we didn’t run away. Anybody could be a victim. Weldy was there like everybody, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. We want MINUSTAH to leave.”
Boutaud de la Combe, the U.N. spokesperson, told IPS there is an ongoing internal investigation into the incident. She said if troops fired into the ground, not in the air, that was a mistake. If Weldy wants reparations for his injury, she said, he needs to file an official complaint. Guatemalan U.N. military police visited him Monday, but Weldy said he did not feel comfortable speaking with them.
International officials and the Haitian government credit MINUSTAH with improving security in Haiti. But some Haitians see the foreign troops as prone to using reckless force with impunity.
When last summer massive crowds attended the Port-Au-Prince funeral of Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a popular priest, U.N. troops were seen on state television opening fire. A 22-year-old man was killed, although MINUSTAH denied responsibility for the shooting, saying the bullet’s calibre was smaller than that used by U.N. troops.
Brazilian U.N. troops arrested Franki Maze, a social leader in the Port-Au-Prince slum of Bel-Air, on the night of Sep. 9. While a medical exam from that night did not validate Maze’s claim that he was sodomised, it found bruising and inflammation on his face and body. He was released later that day.
The U.N.’s internal investigation cleared the troops of any wrongdoing and charged Maze with fabricating parts of his story. It said he was caught in possession of marijuana and tried to run away.
Mario Joseph, a human rights lawyer with Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, is frustrated with how the peacekeeping force handles accusations of abuse. “It’s their tactic: ‘All people in Haiti are liars for MINUSTAH’,” he said. “I filed two complaints in Cite Soleil cases. All the time they make their own inquires. We need to have independent inquires.”
The U.N. Security Council extended MINUSTAH’s mandate another year last month, marking its fifth year in Haiti. The Brazilian military commander, Gen. Floriano Peixoto Vieira Neto, told Reuters in a recent interview that the force is not likely to leave anytime soon.
“The strides we’ve made in security haven’t been matched by the socioeconomic gains we hoped for, and so that’s why we say that the status in Haiti is extremely fragile,” he said.
On Wednesday, the 206th anniversary of Haitian general Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ crushing victory over French colonial troops in the Battle of Vertières, two university professors and twelve students were arrested by Haitian police after protesting the presence of foreign troops on Haiti’s soil, according to the Haitian news agency AlterPresse. It is not clear why they were taken into custody.