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Hoping for change in Haiti’s Cité-Soleil

Originally built to house thousands of manual labourers, the shanty town of Cité-Soleil is a microcosm of all the ills in Haitian society: endemic unemployment, illiteracy, non-existent public services, insanitary conditions, rampant crime and armed violence.

IT is the most basic of existences. Seven out of ten Haitians live on less than US$ 2 a day. From the clean and neat suburbs overlooking the capital Port-au-Prince, the road to the coast winds through decaying quarters where most of the population live crammed together in extreme poverty, which grows more visible and appalling by the day. Just before entering the shanty town of Cité-Soleil, you have to pass through a checkpoint manned by MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Armoured vehicles block the road, while soldiers of the Brazilian battalion, machine guns at the ready, screen everyone going in and out.

A bend to the left brings you onto Route Nationale 1. On one side are the rundown vestiges of a huge industrial zone and the white armoured vehicles of MINUSTAH, in whose shade soldiers of the Jordanian battalion pray under the indifferent gaze of passers-by. On the other side is a long wall, a few low houses built of grey breeze blocks and trenches which transport refuse and effluent through Cité-Soleil from the districts higher up. Numerous bullet holes are a reminder of the armed violence that not so long ago regularly pitted the Blue Helmets against criminal gangs based in the shanty town. The police station is a ruin. Looted and set alight, it is now used as a lavatory.

Bearing to the right, a small road leads into one of the biggest slums in the northern hemisphere. Here 200,000 to 300,000 people live, deprived of basic services, which the authorities have never really been able to deliver. The few officials present before the violence broke out have fled the area because it has become too dangerous. No police, no or little electricity, no sewers, no shops, rudimentary health-care and education facilities — the inhabitants are living in a parallel world, cut off from the rest of the country.

In a place known as Quatre-Cercueils (Four Coffi ns), the ground disappears beneath a thick layer of waste. The rainwater, which has no place to drain, forms muddy, mosquito-infested pools in which fat black pigs wallow. Children bathe in the canal under a scorching sun, surrounded by bits of floating rubbish and excrement. One man confides: “Look, we live in hovels. If we had the means, we would not choose to live here. But when you have nothing, you are nobody, you are less than nothing. We want Cité-Soleil to change. Change, that’s all we ask.”

On the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince, about 300,000 people live in Cité-Soleil, most of them in extreme poverty.






Change is perceptible since the election in February 2006 of René Préval to the presidency. In Cité-Soleil and the capital, a relative calm prevails. The rise to power of this former prime minister of Jean-Bertrand Aristide offers hope for the poverty-stricken population who voted for him in droves. But they haven’t forgotten Aristide; his departure in February 2004 under international pressure is still a sore point, for they looked on him as the defender of their interests. Not surprisingly, therefore, the UN troops, sent to oversee the electoral process aimed at establishing a new political framework for the country, were not welcomed with open arms.

In no time, clashes erupted between MINUSTAH forces and chimères, violent gangs of supporters of the former president. A good number of them has turned to purely criminal activities, a favourite being kidnapping, which has become a thriving industry. The gangs have succeeded in imposing their own law on Cité-Soleil, while in some cases continuing to champion social causes and campaign on behalf of the masses. The dividing line between their political and criminal roles is a fine one.

MINUSTAH’s efforts to put an end to the lawlessness have turned into armed confrontations with the gangs, resulting in many wounded and dead among the population. In June 2004, the ICRC decided to train and support Haitian National Red Cross Society first-aiders in Cité-Soleil. The aim was to evacuate victims of the clashes to the nearest medical facilities, mainly those run by Médecins sans Frontières. In 2005, 692 wounded people were evacuated in local taxis kitted out as ambulances and protected temporarily by the red cross emblem.

Nadège Pinquière stands in front of the Haitian Red Cross premises. The 23-year-old first-aider has taken part in numerous evacuations. The return of a fragile calm does little to cheer her up. “Two of my colleagues were injured in this very place a year ago. They were caught between the soldiers and the bandits. One was shot in the jaw, the other had a finger ripped off. It was a miracle that nobody died.” She claims to be happy with what she is doing for the time being, but her future prospects in Cité-Soleil are bleak. “I don’t want to leave here, but I have to consider it because there really is no solution for Cité-Soleil. There will always be clashes here.” She is silent for a moment, before adding sadly: “Each time I hear an explosion, I feel my heart begin to race and I start to tremble.”

Statistics of despair

As well as being located in the cyclone path, Haiti and its 7 million inhabitants have to contend with the increasing scarcity of drinking water and almost total deforestation causing extensive soil erosion. Man-made disasters are not the least of it: in 2005, the organization Transparency International ranked Haiti 155th in its survey of the world’s most corrupt countries — out of 159 countries.
Life expectancy:
52 years

People living with HIV/AIDS: 280,000
Child mortality among boys:
128 per thousand

Illiteracy among 15- to 24-year-olds:
66 per cent



A pregnant woman is evacuated by Haitian National Red Cross Society volunteers. Last year, this vital service transferred almost 700 people — mostly with gunshot or knife wounds — to medical facilities.


Maintaining a humanitarian space

Partly thanks to the contacts that the Haitian Red Cross has cultivated with the leaders of the different gangs, it has been able to operate a water and sanitation programme since December 2004. The neutral and purely humanitarian nature of Red Cross activities has opened doors which have remained firmly closed to other organizations. “Our policy is to keep the lines of communication open with all the parties involved in the violence in order to preserve a humanitarian space,” says Pierre-Yves Rochat, the engineer in charge of the programme. “And in Cité-Soleil, we were accepted very quickly. Neutrality does have its advantages,” he says with a little smile. The ICRC has even managed to convince the water and refuse collection authorities to resume work in the shanty town.

With its local partners, the ICRC has embarked on cleaning out canals, assists in refuse collection, has restored some 50 public water points and has put two bore wells back into action. In 2005, the residents had access to clean water for 250 days, a marked improvement on the previous year. “The important thing was to protect women and children who were putting their lives at risk by going in search of water outside the shanty town,” says Rochat. “And there is an obvious economic advantage, because the committees that manage the water points sell the water more cheaply than the individuals with water tanks who sell it at a premium.”

Despite everything, the return of public services in Cité-Soleil is still too tentative for the water and sanitation programme to function without the help of the ICRC. Cédric Piralla, ICRC head of delegation in Haiti, remains pragmatic: “There have to be public services. Without them, what else is there? Of course the Red Cross is not going to replace the government. But it can contribute to saving lives. And that’s what the first-aiders are doing.”

Didier Revol
Didier Revol is an ICRC press officer based in Geneva.


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