Just returned from Haiti, participants in a conference of Haitian progressives and international supporters in Port-au-Prince will share their experiences meeting with political prisoners just released from jail and their eyewitness account of a U.N. military operation in a poor neighborhood.
Delegates will speak on a panel Saturday that will include former political prisoner Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste and noted physician Dr. Paul Farmer. The program, called “Haiti Today—Occupation and Resistance”—is at St. Joseph the Worker Church, 7 p.m., 1640 Addison St.
A highlight of the trip for conference participants Jacques Depelchin, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, and Pauline Wynter, ecologist for 30 years in southern Africa, was a visit to the home of activist-folk singer So Anne.
Depelchin and Wynter knew So Anne was a leader in Lavalas, the movement of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They had read that U.S. Marines blasted open the front gate to her home May 10, 2004, shot her dogs, terrified her family members, including a 5-year old grandchild and then arrested the activist, who was locked up for two years.
Neither Wynter nor Depelchin had anticipated the power of the presence of So Anne —“a large, beautiful spirit,” as Wynter called her.
Author of Silences in African History and other works, Depelchin was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Wynter is originally from the Eastern Caribbean. They attended the conference representing the Berkeley-based Ota Benga Alliance, dedicated, according to Depelchin, “to peace, healing, and dignity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the USA and of course everywhere.”
Depelchin said his understanding of Haiti grew deeper while listening to the freed political prisoner. “So Anne began to talk about what jail was,” he said, quoting the former prisoner: “‘They can put the bars as high as they want, we will be like the wind, which will be so strong that we will remove the obstacles.’
“Basically, she would never submit,” Depelchin added.
Why why was So Anne arrested? The early accusations were bizarre—she crushed a baby to death with a mortar and pestle; she collaborated with terrorists from a local mosque; she was plotting against the U.S. Marines. In the end, no charges stuck—but it took two years of her life to get free.
Wynter discounted the charges: “She was arrested because of her spirit and her presence in the world,” she said.
Depelchin compared the effort to break a spirit like So Anne’s to the Haitian revolution of 1804. Like Napoleon’s armies in 1804, which were unable to vanquish the Haitian people, the jailing of political activists such as So Anne, cannot crush their spirits, he said. (Haiti’s enslaved population revolted against the French colonialists gaining independence in 1804.)
“They had to be squashed. Two hundred years—that is what is going on,” Depelchin said, explaining the role of the United States and France in Haiti. “The system has never forgiven the slaves.”
While many in the delegation said their visit with So Anne was the high point of their trip, the low point turned out to be a visit to the impoverished neighborhood of Simon-Pelé. Several delegates to the conference, including Wynter, labor activist Dave Welsh of Berkeley and San Francisco writer Ben Terrall visited that community to investigate reports that U.N. troops had recently attacked and killed people there.
Today there are about 9,000 U.N. troops in Haiti. The U.N. military was deployed in June 2004 to replace U.S. Marines, who policed the country after the United States ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. (The State Department contends Aristide asked the U.S. to fly him out of Haiti.)
Studies such as the one written in 2004 for the University of Miami by Thomas Griffin and recent reports by Haitian and foreign observers have charged the U.N. with passively allowing police to commit violent crimes and directly committing violence themselves.
Delegates said they came to understand that the violence of the U.N. occupation under the U.S.-backed interim government—February 2004 to April 2006—continues today despite the election of President René Préval.
The delegation had just begun interviewing people in Simon-Pelé when they saw four UN armored personnel carriers approaching. “Two went down one street and two came down the street we were on,” Welsh said noting there were many people on the streets, including children.
Accompanying the APCs, manned by Brazilian soldiers, was a U.N. bulldozer and a U.N. dump truck filled with dirt. The dirt was dumped in a roadway “apparently to block an escape route from the neighborhood,” Terrall said in a phone interview from Haiti.
Then the troops started firing. “They were shooting down the street and into houses,” said Welsh, describing the shots as repeated and fired indiscriminately. Both Welsh and Terrall said they heard two pops coming from the direction of the houses, which they said could have been return fire from a small caliber weapon.
The U.N. soldiers ignored the delegation, which filmed and photographed the incident. One of the group asked the soldiers why they were shooting; the soldiers’ response was that they were looking for a criminal. (U.N. spokesperson in Haiti David Wimhurst did not respond to phone calls or e-mailed questions about the incident.)
The delegation left the area as soon as it was safe to do so, but Terrall returned to Simon-Pelé several days later to talk to witnesses. He interviewed the mother of Wildert Samedy, 19, who had been shot and killed by the U.N. that day while he was fixing a radio antenna on the roof of his home.
Wynter said she saw something that she wished not to remember. “But I couldn’t help but notice it,” she said. “I don’t think I saw any U.N. troops who were not brown or black. As someone from the Caribbean, and from the African diaspora, it’s distressing that we’ve gotten to the point where the UN uses black or brown troops to put down people of color.”
The violence of the U.N. military made a profound impression on Wynter, particularly because of the place the Haitian revolution of 1804 holds for her.
“To have the very source of inspiration and courage on the receiving end of such military force should be of extreme importance to everyone in that diaspora,” she said.