Violent Charge Against Peacekeepers in Haiti Strengthens Calls for Departure

Sep 142011

When the video of a group of Uruguayan UN peacekeepers abusing an 18-year old boy Haiti first appeared on YouTube, I was woefully unsurprised. Back in 1998, I covered a similar story, only that time it was Pakistani peacekeepers.

That story stayed local, but the fact that this story was taped by the UN soldiers themselves and found its way on the Internet has catapulted it internationally. A more palatable version showing the troops holding down the young Haitian amidst raucous laughter appeared on ABC’s website. In Europe, the incident was touted as the Abu Ghrab of Haiti. An editorial in Uruguay’s El Pais declared it “Uruguay’s Shame.” The Uruguayan president publicly apologized to Haiti and Haiti’s president already met with the victim and his family.

This week I joined a journalist from Haiti’s only daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, in a visit to the scene of the crime – the otherwise sleepy coastal town of Port Salud, five hours from the capital. Claude Bernard Serant wrote about the evenman, as it’s referred to, last week; this week’s visit was to get more information on the surrounding circumstances.

The story is, in fact, one of powerlessness and poverty. The victim is dirt poor. Until a few years ago, he lived in a flimsy straw hut until a local non-governmental agency built sturdy cement homes for him and his extended family. This same organization subsidized his education until he turned 18. At that point he was forced to fend for himself. Like many others, he turned to the streets, which led him to the peacekeepers.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of the Uruguayan peacekeepers are themselves their country’s poorest (Uruguay has the highest rate of UN peacekeepers per capita in the world), here they are the elite. They drive big tanks and carry heavy weapons, although they were denied the original waterfront property they tried to expropriate as their base when they first arrived. “No way,” said one local. “It’s like taking over the living room and putting in a toilet."

Still, their financial resources are scarce so they engage in what has become known here as ‘cambiar:’ they exchange what they have - food, mostly - for local goods. That includes cigarettes, drugs, and sex. At least a dozen girls, one just 16, have had children with Uruguayan fathers.

The victim’s mom had warned him to stay away from the base. When he didn’t listen, she beat him with a rock. But he persisted. In late July, just outside the base, he was grabbed by a group of soldiers and repeatedly beaten until he was dragged inside the base and forcefully held down. According to those close to him, the video shows only a quarter of the abuse he suffered.

At least four soldiers have been accused of the rape are in custody and are, according to an editor at El Pais, likely to be judged harshly. Port Salud residents told us the other soldiers no longer leave the base to exercise, shop at the local stores or spend the night at their girlfriends’ homes.

Sentiment against the UN mission, known as MINUSTAH, has been growing nationally, particularly since last October, when the cholera outbreak was linked to the raw sewage leaking from the Nepalese base into the water stream. There have been several demonstrations and a mounting cry for the mission’s departure.

No drawdown will happen overnight, but this incident is another wake up cry to the country, and to journalists, who should be addressing the inherent inequity not only with the presence of UN troops but the thousands of aid-workers here. Earlier this month five Oxfam workers were sent home for misconduct.

I doubt these are the last stories of this kind, but with more exposure there is a greater chance that the perpetrators will be exposed, and with some perseverance, held accountable. Journalists from Haiti and Uruguay are now working together to help make sure that happens. That, at least, is one positive byproduct of an otherwise reprehensible story.