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Tension and grief in the Caribbean

Image: Kent RosenthalCommon stereotypes of Haiti make it easy and convenient for the media to portray it as a place of senseless violence, so it almost went without notice when a recent confrontation between UN stabilisation mission forces and residents of Ouanaminthe, near the northern border with the Dominican Republic, was depicted as ‘violence as usual’.

But who’s being violent to whom? On 10 January, 24 Haitians died of asphyxiation in the back of an enclosed van as they were being transported illegally from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, and another died later in hospital. They were victims of human traffickers, a network of military and civilians in both countries, with participants ranging from border checkpoint guards up to the high levels of government and industry hungry for cheap Haitian labour.

But the death of these 25 illegal Haitian immigrants was not the end to the tragedy. The dead needed to be brought home and buried, and authorities on both sides of the border bungled the effort. Authorities had allegedly been planning to cross the border with the bodies in the quiet of the night to bury them secretly. Maybe it would have been better that way than carting them in a truck emblazoned with a Dominican flag, escorted by UN tanks and jeeps, and then forcibly preventing the crowd of mourners from witnessing the burial.

First reports on the incident stated that ‘protesters in Ouaniminthe refused to allow the bodies to be repatriated’, giving the impression that the protests and violence started the moment the truck   escorted by UN mission forces entered Haitian territory.

The reality is otherwise. As the photos show, and anyone at the event on 12 January can attest, residents formed a peaceful procession in front of and behind the truck to accompany it to the cemetery with the intention of witnessing the burial.

As I stood in front of the UN tank that was fending off anyone attempting to enter the cemetery, one frustrated and distraught man turned to me and asked, ‘How do they know I don’t have a son among the dead in that truck?’ Authorities had identified only one of the deceased.

Another man pointed to the heavily armed UN soldiers to make sure I was aware what was happening and that the event was somehow recorded. ‘Look what they (UN forces) are doing! They don’t care about Haiti. Take a photo of this.’

In hindsight it seemed liked a dangerous situation where it was advisable not to be, but when I looked at the faces of the people in the crowd, it was not a desire to be violent that I saw, but a deep anguish and frustration.

As I moved closer to the truck to take a photo (photo 4), beyond the invisible barrier between the UN troops and the crowd, the tension and sense of grief and injustice became overwhelming and some residents started throwing stones. There was gunfire, but it still hasn’t been determined whether it was UN forces or a civilian who initiated fire. I, along with other bystanders, including three members of the Haitian embassy, fled for cover in a small wood-and-tin house in front of the cemetery.

In the confusion that followed, one youth was killed. An investigation is under way to determine whether it was a UN soldier or a Haitian police officer who fired the fatal shot. Several civilians were injured and protests continued throughout the day. The UN Spanish contingent’s military base was attacked, its windows smashed. Ouanaminthe’s main streets were aflame with burning tyres.

The lighter-skinned Haitian embassy official and I waited it out in the house near the cemetery for fear we could be mistaken for Dominicans or Spanish (UN). Jesuit Refugee Service workers tried to collect us but protesters blocked all access. During a lull in the protests we emerged to find that the UN had taken the bodies to a cemetery on the outskirts of the Dominican border town of Dajabón to be buried in a mass grave.

The Dominican Republic’s irrational and unjust migration policy continues to provoke more and more tragedies such as this one. Sixty members of the military on border surveillance duty were arrested after the event, but they are merely scapegoats in a larger web of economic and political interest.

From 1989 to the present, 80 Haitian citizens have died and 98 have been wounded in six tragedies related to the illegal human trafficking.

The interests and benefits to be gained by the traffic of Haitian workers for the Dominican agro, industrial and construction companies are such that these people are brought in at any cost and in any condition.

The media also need to be blamed for their complicity in prolonging stereotypes and injustice in Haiti. As the biased media reaction to the attempted burial in the Ouanaminthe cemetery shows, uninformed journalists often cross the fine line between objective reporting and opinion to dabble in complete falsity and sensationalism. It’s more convenient to make a quick call to a mobile phone from the comfort of an air-conditioned office and ask a photographer at the scene to email a graphic. Despite the advantages of new technology, this form of cyberjournalism is perpetuating stereotypes through its lack of contact with reality.

We talk about violence and terrorism when we are really referring to poverty caused by injustice, corruption and indifference. Look at the grief on the face of the man at the UN military barrier at the Ouanaminthe cemetery. He might remind you of someone you know. 

Kent Rosenthal sj is currently working with Jesuit Refugee Service in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

Postscript: Three people died in election-day incidents on 7 February, and although voting results were not known at press time, former president René Préval, a one-time Aristide ally, was favoured to win.

Photos: Kent Rosenthal


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