Haitians turn on UN peacekeepers they blame for cholera outbreak*
By Rory Carroll
They came in 2004 as saviours to a nation which thought things could not get any worse. History and geography had conspired against Haiti, piling misery upon misfortune, but then the blue helmets arrived, and with them hope.
The 12,000 UN peacekeepers, one of the biggest such missions in the world, lived up to their name: they kept peace. Rampaging criminal gangs melted away and anarchy gave way to stability.
But those days seemed a distant memory tonight after clashes between rioters and troops left two dead, dozens injured, foreigners in hiding and an awful question hanging in the tear-gassed air: did the UN mission, known as Minustah, bring cholera to Haiti?
The boys and men hurling rocks and bottles and shooting at foreign soldiers in the northern towns of Cap-Haitien and Hinche had no doubt. Nor did the residents of Port-au-Prince, who greeted UN convoys with sullen stares and insults.
“Minustah merde!” one man on Rue de Silence yelled at a passing pick-up with blue helmets. He made a slicing motion across his throat before being enveloped in a cloud of diesel and dust. Such is the confusion and loathing it was unclear if it was a threat or a comment on the UN’s possible role in the cholera outbreak.
The irony that Haiti’s putative saviours, in the aftermath of hurricanes and an apocalyptic earthquake, may have brought a water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae has hit what were already fraught preparations for elections on 28 November. Foreign diplomats are holding their breath for the vote to go ahead on schedule.
The facts are thus: an exploding epidemic has killed more than 1,000, infected tens of thousands and spread anxiety through slums and tent cities. There had been no cholera here in living memory. The strain appears to be from south Asia. Soldiers from Nepal, which has cholera, moved into a base beside the Artibonite river in early October. The base has sanitation problems. A week later the river was contaminated and people in the area started vomiting and getting diarrhoea.
That does not add up to proof, and there are alternative explanations, but it seemed good enough yesterday for crowds in Hinche to assault Nepalese troops with bottles and rocks, wounding six. In Cap-Haitien, the country’s second city, a police sub-station was torched, roads were blocked and shots were fired at the UN.
“They’re targeting [and] fighting with Minustah and so if they see white people, they can rush to judge, and target them too,” Jonna Knappenberger, an aid worker in the city, wrote on the Haiti Rewired blog. “Minustah has definitely shot Haitians, at least two are dead, but of course we can’t confirm directly. Haitians are firing guns too, we keep hearing it. I personally would fear for my life on the street right now, especially at night.”
The UN dispatched Spanish soldiers to Cap-Haitien but today it remained cut off, with burning barricades across roads and metal barriers welded to the bridge leading to the airport.
A UN statement blamed the violence on political agitators and said troops fired in self-defence. “Minustah urges the population to remain vigilant and not to allow itself to be manipulated by the enemies of stability and democracy in the country.”
Officials have denied the Nepalese brought cholera and said they all tested negative. Appeals from Haitian leaders and foreign epidemiologists for an official investigation, however, have been ignored.
The controversy has shone a new light on what has been regarded internationally as a successful Brazilian-led mission. Despite extreme poverty and destruction Haiti remains relatively peaceful.
Many Haitians, however, have long criticised the outsiders as a cumbersome occupation force that squanders $500m better spent on building up ramshackle local police and courts.
“Speaking in a personal capacity, I don’t know why we have them,” said Prospery Raymond, country director of the UK-based NGO Christian Aid. “Yes, we have some gangs but we don’t have a war or insurgents.”
Most of the population believed the cholera came from the Nepalese and that the UN will do its best to hide it, he said. “If it is confirmed to be from them this will be damaging for the UN and their peacekeeping all over the world.”
In comparison US troops, who briefly led relief efforts after January’s earthquake, are popular and many people want them back. “Ameriken OK,” smiled Michel Ceant, a vegetable vendor in Port-au-Prince. Then he pointed to his mouth and made a retching sound. “Minustah – bleuh!”