We descend into Cité Soleil.
Mattresses smolder on the trash-strewn roads in this sprawling seaside slum of Port-au-Prince. Gray smoke blows off islands of refuse and the charred remains of burned cars, and the twisted, immolated metal smeared with ash and grime wavers in pools of heat, assuming the abject shapes of a crucifixion. My translator, Jean, our driver, Marc-oreal, and I drive beneath a fierce, tremendous sky seared white and laced with haze and the stomach-turning funk of spoiled meat and fruit.
We stop by a vendor and buy palm-sized plastic bags of water, tear them open with our teeth, tip our heads back, and drink. Squinting against the sky, sweat like hot oil on our skin. Ahead of us, machine-gun-toting policemen in ski masks emerge through the smoke from behind UN armored personnel carriers preceded by feral dogs. Hunched and snapping, the dogs fight among themselves in black piles of steamy garbage.
No sound comes from the mouths of the withered men and women picking through the skeletal remains of vehicles. Just the slow turning of their heads as we drive past. Dogs and pigs wrestle over bloody bandages below some graffiti.
We need Peace.
Unity for everyone.
And one final bit of scrawl.
Bang, bang Haiti!
* * * *
I arrived in Haiti for a freelance newspaper assignment. My friend Peter, a Miami-based photographer, has worked in Haiti for almost twenty years and helped me with the details. He set me up with Jean and made my hotel arrangements. I stopped in Miami on my way out for last-minute advice.
“Whatever you do, don’t go out at night.”
“The bogeyman comes out at night.”
I listened to crickets hum in his backyard. Felt a warm pressure spreading behind my eyes as my second beer kicked in.
“Who’s the bogeyman?”
* * * *
On April 15, the day I left Miami, ten alleged Cité Soleil gunmen were killed in a joint UN-Haitian police operation as part of a campaign begun in March to crush armed groups still loyal to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The human rights organizations Médecins Sans Frontières and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti reported that at least thirty-eight others were injured.
Supporters of the former leader have accused the UN and police of trying to wipe out the pro-Aristide movement, prevent democratic reforms, and position the US-supported interim government for permanent rule.
“We’re trained to kill and use overwhelming power,” Carlos Chagas, the UN spokesman in Port-au-Prince told me. “We understand we must avoid casualties to the civilian population.”
But many of the 250,000 residents of Cité Soleil, an impoverished haven for pro-Aristide factions, accuse the 7,400 Brazilian-led peacekeepers of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah) with shooting indiscriminately into the slum’s patchwork of cramped housing, killing innocent bystanders.
A report by the University of Miami’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, “Haiti Human Rights Investigation: Nov. 11–21, 2004,” charged that UN peacekeepers and soldiers “resort to heavy-handed incursions into the poorest neighborhoods that force intermittent peace at the expense of innocent residents.”
The UN’s close coordination with the Haitian National Police has opened it to further criticism because of allegations against the police of committing summary executions—including the murder of street children—arbitrary arrests, and some rapes.
“The Geneva Convention stipulates that the use of guns against civilians is illegal,” Pierre Alexis, coordinator of the Red Cross operation in Cité Soleil, said. “But the UN doesn’t hesitate to use them.”
I flew to Haiti to see for myself.
* * * *
“Cité Soleil ain’t going to put up with no shit, man,” Jean says between gulps of water. “What I tell you at church, man?”
On our way here, Jean and I had stopped at the church of Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a political activist, friend, and staunch Aristide supporter. He was arrested last year for “inciting public trouble” but was released two months later, following an international outcry and after a judge found no evidence to hold him.
“This is all Bible shit he’s talking,” Jean whispered as the mass started. “I’ll tell you when it gets political.”
He waited until Father Gerard began his sermon.
“We must ask the saints to choose for us a good leader in the elections,” Jean translated. “These past couple of days, the government has refused to let the people out of the ghettos. When you’re hungry, you’re in a war. We pray for peace in Haiti. We need food, schools, health care. A lot of people the UN are killing in Cité Soleil. Ten people died Friday. Cité Soleil is going down, man. Cité Soleil ain’t going to put up with no shit.”
“He’s saying that?” I said.
“No, man, I’m saying that. He’s a priest. He can’t say that. But that’s what he means. The rest of the shit, though, he was saying.”
* * * *
Jean likes to point out areas of Port-au-Prince where he has seen foreign journalists like myself killed in the cross fire between gangs and the police. But not to worry. He will cover my ass, although he thinks its bullshit I’m paying him just forty dollars a day.
“I’m freelancing,” I explain for the hundredth time. “No one’s covering my expenses.”
“Still, I’ve never worked for this little.”
He looks at me. Teeth capped in gold. Ray-Ban sunglasses. Used to live in Miami but got deported for some dumb shit. Won’t say. I don’t ask. He shows me scars on his hands. From bullets, he says. He has a roll to his walk, fists clenched at his sides. Still the Florida gangbanger, but he droops in this heat even as he tries to impress me with his low voice and street strut, his bad-ass self he thinks is worth more than forty dollars. Fuck that.
On the other hand, our driver, Marc-oreal, is grateful for whatever I pay him. The twenty-eight-year-old son of an unemployed minor bureaucrat in the Aristide government, Marc-oreal has driven for aid organizations but says he was rarely paid.
We finish our water and I sit up front with Marc-oreal. When the police see me, a blanche—white man—we assume they’ll think before they shoot. A Harvard Law School report issued just before I left, however, suggested that with support from the UN they might not.
The report found that “MINUSTAH has provided cover for abuses committed by the HNP [Haitian police] during operations in poor, historically tense Port-au-Prince neighborhoods such as Bel Air, La Saline, and lower Delmas. Rather than advising and instructing the police in best practices, and monitoring their missteps, MINUSTAH has been the midwife of their abuses. In essence, MINUSTAH has provided to the HNP the very implements of repression.”
The police watch us proceed into Cité Soleil. I try to read the expression in their eyes, but I feel nothing. A machine gun poking out a slit in one of the UN vehicles follows our car. We drive into plumes of dense smoke, a vaporous border between this world and where we’re headed. Behind us the cloudy forms of the police swirl in fumes and heat.
* * * *
We’re in Cité Soleil to meet the mother of Jean Balral Jean, twenty-eight. He was killed in yesterday’s UN operation while he walked home from his knife shop. His brother Louis transported his corpse to Rodney Funeral Home, near my hotel.
The body lay naked on a metal table, head turned toward us, in a dark, cobwebbed room. His eyes were partially closed, stiff arms raised at the elbows. Wrapped around his right wrist was a scrap of paper scrawled with his name. A small, red, ragged hole in the top of his head caught the dim light of a bare bulb.
Cockroaches scrambled up the shadows his arms cast against the wall toward an empty rum bottle on a shelf beneath a broken clock and barred window. A fan whirred in the ceiling. I brushed sweat from my forehead and the mortician turned up the fan.
“About ten come in a week like this one,” the mortician said.
“Shot?” I asked.
“I do not have the opportunity to bury him,” Louis said.
Meaning he couldn’t afford a funeral. Meaning Jean would in all likelihood be taken to Tiltonyon, a mountaintop potter’s field outside Port-au-Prince. Not in a casket. Not wrapped in a sheet. Naked. Tossed out. His burial as barren and stark as the clods of dry earth that would cover his body.
* * * *
We turn down a broken street gouged with crater-sized potholes. A UN tank stands in the rubble of a Texaco gas station. Two teenage boys stand up from the curbside. They reach into the back of their pants, withdraw 9-mm Glocks, and point the handguns at our windshield.
One of the boys walks around to the driver’s side and peers inside the Jeep. He rests his gun on Marc-oreal’s open window.
“Presse,” Marc-oreal says.
They look at my media badge, shrug, and wave us on.
“You got to pay me more, man,” Jean says from the backseat. “Know what I’m saying? These motherfuckers’ll kill us. I’ve never earned this little.”
In a country where the average monthly income is less than fifty dollars, the shit you haven’t.
* * * *
When I don’t take him personally, I appreciate Jean’s frustration at being stuck with a low-budget freelancer. Like many poor Haitians, he expected boom times only to see his fantasy of the good life dashed with the fall of Aristide in 2004. A real letdown given the mood of the country a scant fourteen years before.
During the 1980s Aristide, born into poverty himself near Port Salut, became a national figure as a defender of the poor against the oppressive policies of the ruling dictatorial Duvalier family. In 1991, when Aristide won his first presidential campaign, poor people all over this impoverished island had dreams of earning real money from real jobs that would provide them and their families with real opportunities. But after serving just seven months, he was ousted in a military coup.
With the help of the US, he was restored to power in 1994 and served the rest of his five-year term. He took office again in 2001, but opponents of his Fanmi Lavalas party accused him of election fraud and corruption. I suspect Aristide merely saw it as covering his ass. Like Haitian leaders before him, he organized his own private militia to intimidate and attack opponents to thwart further coups. For that he recruited from the poor in Cité Soleil and other ghettos. They received money and government munificence and occasionally jobs with state companies.
The gang culture of Cité Soleil did not exist when Aristide was first elected. The place was still an armpit, but not an armed one. The arming of Cité Soleil began in small steps. First, Haitians who became caught up in gangs and drug dealing in the US started to be deported in large numbers in the 1990s and invariably ended up in Cité Soleil. The slum first gained access to guns thanks to the 20,000-strong US military force that returned Aristide to power. The first reports of weapons being distributed by Aristide’s men directly date from 1997, when he was gearing up for a second presidential run.
The commanders of these loosely knit militias are loyal to rebel leader Emmanuel “Dread” Wilme, who says he is fighting for the return of Aristide. But many Cité Soleil families claim the gangs use their weapons to terrorize their neighborhoods. Human rights groups have documented countless assaults, robberies, and hijackings. More than ninety rapes were committed between January and April of 2005.
The gangs and their weapons couldn’t save Aristide. His second presidential term was marred by persistent poverty and civil unrest. Rioting spread across the country, and in February opposition forces surrounded the capital and Aristide left Haiti for the final time.
US marines controlled the country until June 2004, when the UN arrived. Violence was rampant between feuding gangs jousting for power. The UN forces endured months of criticism from Secretary of State Colin Powell for not doing enough to bring order before the March crackdown.
“We are criticized by both sides,” Chagas said. “We are too tough; we are not being tough enough. We only shoot at well-defined targets. We use violence only when necessary and very directed to avoid civilian casualties. They have suffered enough.”
* * * *
Marc-oreal parks the car in a dead-end alley. We step over streams of sewage cutting through the broken asphalt. Pigs, black from wading in oil-filmed muddy canals, rut through the garbage where children naked from the waist down scrounge for usable scrap. Boys stroll by us in T-shirts and jeans with machine guns as long as their bodies. They clench their fists and pound on their chests and shout for Aristide’s return.
“Keep your eyes on my back, and I’ll keep my eyes on yours,” Jean whispers.
The gangbangers collect around us, circling.
(Write this down, blanche. There will be a massacre every night until Aristide comes back.)
Demand my attention.
(Minustah won’t give us water until we give up on Aristide. We drink dirty water . . .)
(Shooting all day. A tank rolled over a girl. Split her head like a melon . . .)
(Things are worse every day. At this moment we have a bloodbath. Every morning people begin their day in blood.)
They take my hand, fold it into a fist, and then strike it with their fists.
(Without Aristide there will be fire!)
They turn away.
(Go. See for yourself.)
We walk on.
* * * *
Families live squeezed among one another. Cinder block shacks sit on fetid streets amid stagnant ponds of sewage and weed-choked canals poisoned by toxic waste. Women walk miles for clean water, carrying buckets on their heads in muggy 80-degree or higher temperatures. They pass UN armored personnel carriers that rarely leave the major roadways outside Cité Soleil.
Oddly enough, this hellhole is prime real estate. Cité Soleil and other slums represent a large voting block for aspiring politicians. They have also been targeted by international donors for development and as a result would increase the clout of politicians who controlled them as private sector businesses bid for contracts. The slums also carry symbolic value. Aspiring politicians could claim grassroots support if they carried these areas, as Aristide did.
All of these scenarios, with their delusions of glory and power, make it more difficult for opposing factions to compromise and formulate plans to stop the violence.
“We need dialogue,” said Philadelphia lawyer Thomas M. Griffin, author of the University of Miami report. “But there’s no Jimmy Carter going down there to do it.”
* * * *
At the beds raised on cinder blocks. Easier to crawl under when the shooting starts.
(Last night, I heard UN shooting. Every day shooting. I can’t work in Cité Soleil because of the shooting.)
At the sunlight lasering through jagged bullet holes in a sheet metal roof.
(We are living a curse.)
At people running when a UN tank rolls down the street.
(This is how we live.)
* * * *
We wander through dank side streets, past shattered buildings, until I am dizzy from the heat and the stench. In an instant I drop to the ground and scramble into a house, moving without knowing why, my body reacting before my brain can define the noise, whump, whump, whump . . . whump, whump, whump . . . whump, whump, whump . . .
Gunfire, I finally understand when it stops. A heavy, crushing vibration reverberates in the silence broken by the cries of babies.
“UN,” an old man says, watching me get off the floor.
“How do you tell?”
“By the sound. You hide from an echo. It is not the bullet you hear that will kill you; it’s the one you don’t.”
“Bull shit,” Jean says, crawling out from beneath the bed.
We shake the old man’s hand and move on.
* * * *
Ananaze Santeilise, the mother of Jean Balral Jean, sits on a white metal chair in the cramped humidity of her cinder block house and points toward the bed cluttered with pots, pans, and clothes. We push the clothes to one side and sit. A pot clatters to the floor, and the noise disperses through the gray light suspended for a moment by the heavy air.
“How did you hear about your son?” I ask.
“I was told on my way home from work by a friend,” Santeilise says in Creole. “They said, ‘You will find where he died at the place where there is blood on the ground.’”
Jean wipes perspiration from his face with a yellow washcloth he keeps in his pocket and offers it to her. She presses it against her forehead and looks at me. Her face is drawn and slack as though she has concluded a prolonged journey and now, exhausted, speaks in a monotone like something made from stone.
“I could say today I’m hungry and Jean would say, ‘Take that’ and give me money,’” Santeilise says. “Now I have a fever. I don’t eat. I look at his picture. I pray. People say bad things about me because I can’t pay for his funeral.”
She shifts in her chair, tightening a rag around her waist.
“If I didn’t have this to make my stomach small,” she says of the rag, “I could never tolerate the hunger.”
Whump, whump, whump . . .
The house shudders and we drop to the floor. Her voice breaks against the concussion of noise.
“I lost my son . . . I . . . lost . . . ”
* * * *
The hot air cools to warm and wafts around the veranda of the Park Hotel. I drink a beer and fend off mosquitoes. Inside the wood-paneled lobby behind me, past wide, tall doors and the thick columns of what was once a plantation, an air of decayed servitude hovers above two of the hotel staff, nodding their heads to the tinny music that drills through the headphones of their CD players.
Jean opens another beer hidden in shadows cast by bare tree branches twisted arthritically above us. Shuttered vendor stalls draped with burlap sacks hunker against the night, vacant sentry posts of solitude. We listen to sudden bursts of gunfire, the grind of heavy equipment, and the rumble of low-flying aircraft concealed within an impenetrable sky.
Moonlight casts a white glaze over downtown, and the air barely moves, as if waiting to be called by something unworldly. We hear the steady trot of dog packs coming closer and closer—then an explosion of gunfire from Bel Air, a nearby slum and another Aristide stronghold.
“What was that?”
“Fifty caliber,” Jean says.
“UN, police, who knows, man?”
The blast disperses the air, rumbles off carrying our breath. Angry, scattered shouts follow, but no more gunfire. Tomorrow Lavalas leaders will lead a march to Cité Soleil from Bel Air protesting UN military operations.
“Bring your running shoes,” Jean says.
* * * *
The morning of the demonstration, Marc-oreal has another job, so Jean and I catch a cab to Bel Air. The driver, however, refuses to go there.
“Too dangerous. I have family,” he says.
“Fuck, I have family too,” Jean says. Then turning to me: “I told you. You don’t pay me enough.”
He drops us off on a rubble-strewn street at the outskirts of Bel Air. Black rivulets of water run beneath our feet. We see a couple of gangbangers hitting on a group of girls. Jean slips on his sunglasses, hunches into his rolling walk. Fingers curled into half fists. Mouth open, the gold caps on his teeth glinting with saliva.
We stop at a bonfire where marchers have begun gathering. A man waves a Haitian flag over the flames. Another man dances with a chicken, leaping above the flames. People collect in a growing circle and shout for Aristide’s return. UN vehicles and police vans take positions on a hill above us.
“The UN is scared,” a man shouts.
“They are not a good spirit. They don’t have good hearts,” another yells.
“All the people are against them!”
“All of Haiti is for Cité Soleil!”
We begin running up the street, waving leafy green branches we tore off trees, a miniature forest on the move. The running heightens the marchers’ energy and allows their exuberant defiance to expend itself in ways other than violence. It also shortens what would be a long walk. But running is brutal in this muggy heat, air wet-towel thick.
“Some people bring their kids to this shit,” Jean says, panting beside me.
We run for ten miles. UN soldiers and Haitian police follow us in armored vehicles. My pants are soaked with sweat, sag off my waist. My feet burn. We slip through alleys slick with garbage, arms wagging for balance, running, running, running . . .
“The UN has to leave so we can kill the police!”
“Shoot us and there’ll be trouble!”
“We came here to unite Cité Soleil with Bel Air!”
… running, running, running, stopping finally at the outskirts of Cité Soleil, collapsing to our knees, the funk of our bodies wrapping around us like a sheet in the abrupt secession of movement. We suck in great draughts of hot air. My lungs on fire.
“Did you hear the good news? A Filipino died in Boston!” a man shouts, referring to a UN peacekeeper who had been killed on Boston Street in Cité Soleil recently. He runs ahead without waiting for an answer.
* * * *
Jean slaps the outstretched palm of one reed-thin gangbanger with sunglasses and a blue bandanna wrapped around his head.
“Loco, that’s his name,” Jean says. “He launches grenades during protests. He doesn’t carry a gun, but he has one nearby. He’s not far from where his weapons are at. When the UN shoots, you’ll see everyone’s hands go up, give you five for Aristide. One person runs, comes back with a bag of guns.”
A Haitian journalist offers us a ride in his Jeep. He has air conditioning. We collapse in the backseat. The cool air dries my face. I close my eyes and rub my feet and think of taking off my shoes.
Whump, whump, whump . . .
We all recognize the sound and duck our heads. The concussions rock the Jeep and I’m thrown from side to side. Hunched low behind the wheel, the driver floors it, swerving around the panicked crowd. I slide to the floor on top of Jean.
“There you go with your bitch ass,” he shouts, shoving me off. I push back and we lie tangled together.
The shooting stops as suddenly as it started. The driver pulls over to a side street and we get out. We find thick shell casings on the ground, warm to the touch. People scatter over the broken land in all directions.
“They are trying to figure out how to get out now that the UN is shooting,” the driver says.
Jean straightens his clothes and shrugs.
“They have to shoot during these demonstrations,” he says of the UN. “The people get so happy they’ll destroy some shit unless the UN breaks up the crowd.”
A man running by us stops long enough to say the UN has killed six, maybe ten people. We get back in the truck and careen downtown to the morgue. No bodies were dropped off, an orderly tells us. They would not be brought here in any case, he continues. They would be dumped at Tiltonyon.
* * * *
Jean finds a cab driver to take us to Tiltonyon for fifty dollars. That’s a lot for just an hour drive, but I agree.
Tiltonyon is not what I expected. The clear blue skies above us offer no hint of vultures despite the rotted corpses of two horses by the side of the road. I smell the sea and the salty air rising off the hard, flat plate of the ocean. Our driver takes us onto a rutted dirt road.
Two men with shaved heads stand up in some weeds. They deny knowing anything about bodies. Jean persists and they haggle over a price. We settle on twelve dollars. The men get in our taxi, and we bounce further up the road to a barren patch of blackened ground. A charred body stares up at the sun. Tires had been tossed on it and then burned to kill the stench of rotting flesh. Copper wires catch the sun and wind carries ash toward us. Maggots collect in the skull. Teeth on the ground like tossed dice. Strands of hair. We cover our faces against the funk.
“Hurry,” one of the men says. “If the police catch me showing you this, they will kill me.”
More bodies are buried up on a hill. He offers to take us to them for more money, but then a police van drives by on the highway and we all drop to the ground. When it’s out of sight, he grabs me by the arm and pulls me toward the taxi.
“Go.” To Jean: “I hate the white man. They bring only problems.”
I give him his money and he calms down. He offers to call us when he has more bodies. The taxi driver takes us back into Port-au-Prince and drops us off near the hotel. I take a fifty-dollar bill from my wallet. Jean hits my hand but not before the driver sees the money.
“I paid him already,” he snaps. “Give me the money.”
The driver grabs Jean’s arm and Jean thrusts him off. They shout at one another, stalk away, turn around, and face each other again. I understand enough of what they’re saying to figure out that Jean paid him just thirty dollars.
“Fuck you!” Jean shouts finally. He slugs the driver in the face and shoves him into the taxi.
“You coming?” Jean shouts at me.
“Man, just give him the money.”
“I told him thirty. I’m keeping twenty as a service fee. Fuck him. Man, you don’t pay me enough!”
* * * *
Evening. Park Hotel. Jean and I drink beers. Dusty Springfield’s voice drifts out of my laptop with her own rough edges.
The only one who could ever reach me . . .
“She was on Pulp Fiction?”
… was the son of a preacher man . . .
“You want to spend the night in Cité Soleil?”
“I won’t know what it’s like living there unless I stay.”
“You’ve asked people what it’s like.”
“It’s not the same.”
… yes he was, he was, ohh . . .
“Did you see the movie?” Jean asks.
“Like one of the hottest movies that came out whenever. Made John Travolta again. Sure did.”
Jean takes out his cell phone and makes a call.
“It’s done,” he says after a few minutes. “It’s set. We can spend the night. I talked to a commander.”
“Someone I know, man. That’s all you got to know. Now, you got to do something about what you pay me.”
“If we spend the day and night there, that will be the same as six eight-hour shifts. I’ll pay you $240.”
“Why not $300?”
“Because forty times six is two-forty.”
“Too cold, man, that’s what I’ll start calling you. Too cold. You ain’t like her preacher man. You’re not pleasing anybody.”
Well, hell. What was I going to say to that? Between bursts of gunfire I sway to Dusty Springfield’s rusty crooning, watch stars snap silently to the beat. The air ripples with static. I wish we had more beer, because I sure like the music, although I never saw the movie.
* * * *
We wait for the commander by a mud hut. A woman makes mud pots and dries them in the sun. A goat rummages in weeds nearby. The goat bolts, and two guys in T-shirts and blue jeans come around from the back of the hut and point machine guns at us.
I shake my head.
“Like you’d admit that even if you were?” Jean whispers and then flashes his gold smile.
They check our press badges. Satisfied, they call the commander on a cell phone.
“We’re clear,” Jean says.
Minutes later, the commander rides toward us on the back of a moped. He has on a blue sports jersey, blue jeans, and sneakers. He smiles a boyish grin and clasps my hand. Then he leads us to a car and takes us inside Cité Soleil.
He calls himself Pepper. He guesses his age at about twenty-five. He has a wife, but she lives outside of Cité Soleil and comes by once a week with their son. She can’t handle all the shooting, he explains.
In the distance, we hear the whump, whump, whump of UN guns. My shoulders twitch, but I no longer drop to the ground. The old man was right. The echo from each blast makes it sound closer than it is.
Pepper takes us to a spot where a torn poster of Aristide hangs on the wall of an otherwise demolished house.
“That’s him,” he says. “That’s who we’re dying for.”
* * * *
Naked children grab Pepper’s hands. Someone was shot, they shout, tugging at his shirt. They run down an alley. We follow them to a house made from scraps of sheet metal. A pig lies on the ground behind the house, its throat torn open by a bullet. Its owner weeps. He says the pig was worth $100. He points across a canal at UN soldiers.
“Minustah,” he says and spits.
The children shake their heads. Not the pig. A woman was shot. We run down to a canal slick with the rainbow colors of spilled gasoline. Oil cans float in the muck, knocking against a boat tied to the shore. We get in it and cross the slimy water to a teetering dock on the other side.
“Help us,” women scream at Pepper. “Help us!”
The women run ahead of us. A flooded street turns them back. They take another direction, dashing up a road toward the sea. The fresh salt air soothes my face and transports me out of Cité Soleil. Then I bump into a woman ahead of me staring at the ground. I look down. The dead woman lies sprawled in the ruined foundation of a shattered house. Blood spreads thick and dark beneath her, mixing with puddles of sewage. Her open eyes stare out at us. Her fingers move, digging into the gravel, and then stop. Flies descend on her face.
The dead woman’s sister-in-law shrieks and pulls out fistfuls of her hair. She holds the woman’s squalling baby wrapped in a sheet.
“Give her your breast. She needs to eat,” an old woman tells her.
The sister-in-law pushes past her and stomps down the road toward an armored UN personnel carrier shrieking and wailing. Other women pull her back. She kicks at them and tries to scratch their faces. Pepper watches, his laughing eyes no longer boyish but dark and bitter. He tosses a gun back and forth in his hands. One of his gangbangers stops me. He holds a pistol over my head, pointing it down into the center of my skull.
“We are one, blanche! Minustah is shooting at us. We don’t give a fuck and we’ll shoot back! Do you want to see me shoot you, blanche? Are you Minustah?”
Other gangbangers encircle us, pumping their fists in the air. Jean tries to call them off, but they ignore him. The gangbanger pushes the gun against my head. I look at my feet.
“Fuck these motherfuckers!” Jean says. “You can’t let them push you around, man.”
“Shut up!” I hiss below my breath.
“Even if I am only armed with a broom, we don’t give a fuck!” the gangbanger screams, strutting back and forth, the gun still aimed at my head. “We’ll shoot back, blanche. We shoot, shoot, shoot!”
I don’t move. I try to control the shaking overtaking my body.
“We’ll make sure a couple of them die, too. Only Aristide comes in here. Without Aristide, people will die! No one . . . ”
He cuts himself off, turns in the direction of a rumbling noise. A UN armored personnel carrier moves toward us.
“Minustah is coming!” a woman yells.
“They see one man with a gun, they will kill anyone around him,” another woman shouts at Pepper.
The gangbanger pushes me away and darts behind a house. Jean grabs my hand and we run, weaving behind houses as the sister-in-law screams behind us . . .
“The baby cries. I don’t know what to do. I have no money. Help me!”
… and I inhale lungfuls of air, sobbing, but I don’t feel tears, thinking, what the fuck? thinking, he held a gun to my head, he held a gun to my Goddamn head, thinking I’m so hot, thinking run, run, run, struggling to keep my balance against the explosions shaking the ground, turning away from shadows spread below all these ruined homes, we dodge through like blood seeping from the girl’s chest, run, not an echo, not an echo this time, run, run, run, until I can no longer move and I fall to my knees and vomit.
* * * *
We cross the canal. The shooting continues sporadically far behind us. Pepper finds us some rusted folding chairs, and we sit outside a shop across from the portrait of Aristide and rest. A string of bare lightbulbs bounces above the street. Armed boys throw stones at the lights and talk about the girl’s death.
“Maybe the UN smokes crack the way they go crazy and shoot people.”
“Walking around beating people, and then they shoot the girl.”
“There might be some thugs in the ghetto, but not everybody’s into something.”
A Federal Express plane flies overhead.
Whump . . . whump . . . far behind us. An echo. The boys laugh.
“They shoot when a plane is in the air because they think we can’t hear the noise over the engines.”
Someone turns up the volume on a radio, and distorted music scrapes the air. Pepper dances. Jean hits me up for beer money.
“You want to show these guys you’re relaxed,” he says.
I give him ten dollars. He hands it to one of the gangbangers. The boy walks into a small store and leans his machine gun against the open door. Dust-covered scattered bags of potato chips, napkins, straws, and cans of beer and soda weigh down the splintered shelves.
The gangbanger returns with the beer and passes it around. Another kid rolls a marijuana joint with Cuban tobacco leaves. He hands it to me. I shake my head. I have asthma.
“This is a test, man,” Jean whispers. “If you smoke it, they’ll know you’re not a CIA spy.”
“After all the acid the CIA gave out in the ’60s, they believe that? You got to be shitting me.”
Jean shrugs. I look around. The gangbanger holds the cigar-size joint out to me without expression. I smell the beer on his breath. Smoke curls past my face.
“It doesn’t look good if we argue, man,” Jean says.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Your choice. You want them to think you’re a spy?”
I take the joint, inhale deeply, hold my breath, and pass it on. I exhale coughing. I spit and take a hit off my asthma inhaler. The gangbanger hands the joint back to me.
“He says you’re working it too hard,” Jean says. “Inhale slowly, don’t grip it so tight with your fingers.”
I try again. This time the gangbanger holds it for me. I inhale and take in much more weed than the first time. My lungs burn. I exhale, letting out a stream of white smoke. I cough and Jean hands me a beer. The gangbanger smiles, puts the joint in his mouth. The ground slants as if someone has picked up one end of a table. I feel myself sliding off.
* * * *
“Why’re you here?”
I look at a young man with a shaved head staring down at me. My eyes burn. He has on a red T-shirt and blue jeans. His jeans have creases, and his shirt looks pressed as well. Jean knows him. René, a Lavalas organizer. Not a gunman. But I remember what a human rights observer told me: “It is not possible in the slums to be political without gang support. They are forced to work with these armed groups.”
“Why’re you here?” René asks again.
I say some slurred bullshit about trying to understand what’s really happening in Haiti. My voice sounds slow and very far away, and I lose my train of thought every time I pause for Jean to offer an equally distant-sounding translation.
“You’re on the right road to get the truth,” René says, speaking with a lisp. “This is bourgeoisie versus the poor. The bourgeoisie and government put their heads together and decided we’re the enemy because we believe in Aristide . . . ”
His words bounce around in my head like moths trapped in light, an unnecessary confusion, a weight bearing down on my high when all I want to do really is what I’m doing, man, zoning, everything I saw today chilled down into one big, fat, bland Iowa cornfield flipping by the window of my parents’ car on our yearly summer vacations, the same flat expanse mile after mile of deadening monotony until it becomes a long blur of fading screams and gunshots and blood-drained bodies and gun after gun held above my head dropping through my body, eh, blanche, and I sink into the bottom of my shoes, socked in tight and deep, whump, whump, and lose the day to sleep and dope dreams I won’t remember but that leave me exhausted . . .
“Wake up,” Jean says and shakes me hard. “He wants to take us on a reality walk.”
“René. That’s what he calls it. Here.”
He hands me the joint.
* * * *
Up on our feet, we stumble after René—This is bourgeoisie versus the poor, he says. The bourgeoisie and the government decided we’re the enemy—and he nods at people around us like a ward politician, and I’m dazed, lost in the zone, legs heavy, slow motion locomotion—We believe in Aristide. We believe he will come back into the country. We will continue to hold rallies until this government falls—pass the oil-stained shore of the canal, cans, bottles, clothes laid out to dry on cactus plants, on sheet metal roofs, all these funky clothes, my feet heavy concrete blocks.
We stop at St. Catherine’s Hospital, now closed. The bleak waiting room. Vacant green stools gathering dust. Skeleton people on brown plastic mattresses watch us with hollow eyes and then float above the dirty tile floor, dirty yellow walls, dirty, dirty, dirty, no doctor to see them but they come anyway, waiting for no one until they eventually dissolve, carried away in the air.
A woman stares at us. Have I entered another room or just noticed her? She had a baby. The baby died. That’s it. Nothing more. A breeze lifts her away with the others down the hall, where unemployed nurses and orderlies sit silent against the wall near some graffiti; we work but don’t get paid.
René takes us out of the hospital into the fading light of early evening. We walk to the pier and stare at empty fishing boats, at the empty factory buildings across the murky water, and beyond them to green hills darker for the heavy black rain clouds hovering above the grassy peaks and the white bungalows of people with money.
“I could use another beer,” Jean says.
Whump . . . whump . . .
“Let’s go,” René says, looking in the direction of the shooting. “If Minustah catches us here, they will kill us and throw us into the sea.”
We stop at a bar, a dark cave of a place filled with screeching music that drills holes in my head. We can’t talk above the noise, oh, man, the noise, sit numb while a Denzel Washington movie plays on a TV wavy with distorted lines, and I fall apart into a million pieces, picked apart by the music while we sip Pepsi’s and boys with guns longer than their bodies wander in and nod their heads to the groove, dig it, growing larger before my eyes to match the size of their guns.
We finish our sodas and René takes us to his house, a square cinder block building. A bed takes up most of the room inside. Buckets and pans lie about the floor beneath a shelf of dishes. He turns on a light and flies scatter from the bare bulb and exposed wires.
He sets out a pan for us to piss in. We cannot go outside, he tells us. Someone might mistake me for Minustah and shoot us.
“Everyone knows you’re here,” he says. “I’m obligated to keep you protected until you leave.”
I stretch out on a blanket. Jean takes out the remains of a joint and a bottle of beer from his pocket.
“I’m going to finish this shit, since we bought it.”
I give him a look.
“Okay, you bought it, I ran for it. Same thing. Hey, man, if you got money for beer and pot, why can’t you pay me more?”
Whump, whump, whump . . .
Somewhere north of René’s house. Far away. Echo. White noise, man. I fall asleep.
* * * *
We awaken to a woman singing a church hymn horribly out of tune. My mouth tastes of paste. My head feels inflated and my temples throb. As soon as the sun rises, René escorts us to the edge of Cité Soleil. We catch a cab to the hotel, shower, and sleep.
Then my cell phone rings. Marc-oreal. Fighting has broken out in Cité Soleil, he says. He has another job and can’t take us. Jean and I run outside for a cab.
We drive toward the sound of gunfire. Cars screech into U-turns as drivers spin around and drive past, away from the fighting. We leave the taxi and jog, crouching, down the scorched road. We see gangbangers hijacking trucks, kicking the shit out of the drivers as they yank them out from behind the wheel and onto the street.
Boys strut around with machine guns. UN soldiers stand to one side and make no effort to intervene in the looting. Fires burn around us, and the gangbangers balloon and shrink in shimmers of hot, distorted air, snarling words lost in explosions of orange flames.
A boy on a scooter drives out of a side street and confronts a gangbanger, who waves for him to stop. He doesn’t. The gangbanger hauls out a pistol and shoots him in the temple.
A geyser of blood spouts from his head and fans out toward the flames and the black smoke rising off the street, and I watch him fall, the scooter skidding out from under him.
I’m thinking Vietnam, man, and that photo of a Vietnamese general popping that dude in the head just like this kid. Blam! Blam!
The shooter turns toward us, points his gun.
Jean screams. Bullets zing around us. We run, kneel behind some rubble. Jean calls Pepper on my cell phone, but he won’t meet us. Too much shooting. He tells us to come in on our own and use his name.
Pop, pop, pop . . .
Machine-gun fire. Gang shooting. Too close. Some UN soldiers drop behind the doors of their tanks. Vendors hide behind them. We turn around and run back to the street, find our taxi, and race back to the hotel.
* * * *
“I’m not a happy man,” Jean says when I pay him. “You’re going to get me killed. And you don’t even know where I live. Who’s going to take care of my wife and kids?”
Hell, I don’t know. Shit. Let it pass. I pat him on the shoulder. He shrugs me off and I see that he’s shaking.
“We could have died out there today, man. You ain’t paying me enough for this shit.”
I watch him leave. He’ll get over it, I think. A bad day. That’s all.
An hour later my cell phone rings.
“Man, I’m done!” Jean screams at me before I say hello. “This is bullshit! You don’t care if I live or die.”
“Calm down? Fuck you! Don’t you get it? Everybody’s shooting everybody!”
He hangs up. I never thought he’d quit. I leave in two days. I have more reporting to do. Need to spend time with Pepper. Get back into Cité Soleil. What else, what else? My hands tremble. Concentrate. God dammit, Jean!
My head rocks with the echo of his voice blowing out my ear drum. Not even the buzz of mosquitoes distracts me. Then even Jean’s voice disappears. I see everything clearly. That kid on the scooter. Blood spraying.
“Blam!” I shout in my room, and the walls leap with flames. “Blam, blam, blam, blam!”
I cover my face, but I still see him falling off his scooter, and then the phone rings, and I answer it, and Jean picks up where he left off calling me all kinds of motherfuckers.
* * * *
The phone rings again. Jean, probably. Off on another tear. I answer. It’s Marc-oreal. He can work for me today if I need him. There’s a police operation going on in Bel Air. Pick me up, I tell him. Now.
* * * *
In Bel Air, a man waves to us and points at a man lying on a sheet of metal. He has been shot twice in the left thigh. He lifts his head to say something, but we move on, chasing after our informant.
We run through narrow, twisting alleys beneath bedsheets tangled on a laundry line. Women lean out of doorways and point downhill, screaming. I splash through puddles, running, running, running, and we break out into a wide street and veer off down another alley and down some stone steps and stop suddenly at the sight of a dead man sprawled before us.
Blood seeps out the left temple, and his head has mushroomed into the shape of a large potato. A huge wound gapes out his right hip as if he had been attacked by a shark. Gun shells litter the ground around him. Someone has pulled down his pants, exposing his genitals.
Our informant urges us on through more damp alleys heavy with mildew and smelling of decay. I fall behind, wheezing. I take a hit off my asthma inhaler. A gangbanger emerges on my right. I show my press badge. He lowers his gun, but then to my left two more boys run out with guns pointed at me. The first kid raises his gun at my head.
“Presse!” I scream, dropping to the ground. “Fucking presse!”
They cover me with their guns. None of us move. I hear us all breathing hard. Finally, one of them waves his gun and I get up and continue running.
Marc-oreal stands outside a house. A man lies on a door moaning. Beside him a baby cries. The man has been shot in the right leg below the knee.
“They say Aristide kills. Now you see who is doing the killing,” a woman hisses in my ear, spraying my neck with spit.
Next door, another woman wrinkled as worn leather shrieks into the enfolding arms of her daughter. Together they weep uncontrollably. Another daughter was shot in the head. She walked outside as the police began shooting.
“I was here, she was there. She goes outside and gets shot,” the mother wails. I follow her gaze to the pool of blood at the entrance of her house. A man steps in it, looks at the soles of his sandals, shrugs, and moves on.
We hear gunfire and run, afraid that the police have returned. We duck into a house and crawl beneath the windows to stay out of sight. An old man lies on a filthy mattress. A nurse who lives in Bel Air has connected an intravenous tube to a plastic milk jug filled with a clear fluid and inserts the needle into his left arm. Bloody towels pad his stomach, congealing the air with the stench of his wounds. A man tugs off his blood-filled underwear, cleans him, and tugs on a clean pair.
Then three men lift him up. He makes a face and moans. He reaches behind and wraps his arms around the neck of the man who carries him by the shoulders. They lift him up a flight of narrow steps, drops of blood marking his passage.
We go out into the street and hide from UN vehicles rolling through Bel Air. Police vans follow close behind. Stay on the sidewalk, Marc-oreal tells me. Close to the buildings. Makes for a smaller target.
* * * *
Evening. Park Hotel. In bed. Can’t sleep. Another deadening night when I debrief myself in dreams of blood and mourning, the numbing drone of flat, affectless voices telling me of lost sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, losses amid losses amid losses, They came to me and said you have a problem and then I saw my wife’s body on the ground and now I must care for our baby alone, Peter, you were right, the bogeyman does come out at night, behind closed eyes, and the restless spirits lying within, fucking with me, Haiti, another frequency altogether, eh, blanche?
* * * *
Morning. I call Marc-oreal and ask him to take me into Cité Soleil one last time before I leave tomorrow. Marc-oreal doesn’t know Pepper, but he does know another commander, Jean Albert Pierre, a local militia leader in the Cité Soleil neighborhood of Project Doullard. He commands about twenty armed young men and boys between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two. He was a policeman under Aristide and then lost his j ob after the president’s ouster.
We drive to Cité Soleil and meet with Maestro, a tall man with a hoarse voice and one of Pierre’s chief lieutenants. He says Pierre is on his way. He gives us chairs and we sit. He stands over me and stares. I think I’m being screened.
After a moment, Maestro turns away and listens to a CD of reggae music. He shares his headphones with me. Half a dozen other gangbangers lounge around him. They belong to a band and practice their music on tin horns and bongos. One of them hands his horn to me. I try to blow on it. My cheeks puff out, no sound. He takes it back and looks disappointed.
Maestro picks up his two-year-old daughter. A man holding the hands of two children walks by us on the narrow dirt path. Maestro reaches up and pats the gun in the back of the man’s pants. They laugh. The children scowl at one another. Isolated gunfire pierces the morning between horn blasts of the practicing band.
* * * *
Commander Pierre arrives an hour later followed by a small boy who looks aabout ten years old. He wears American military fatigue pants, a red T-shirt, a green bandanna, and sunglasses. Maestro gives a salute and Pierre tells him to sit. He carries a manila envelope with a work application he will help one of his soldiers complete. He also has set up a garbage detail and shows me the schedule. Many old men and women have nothing to do, he tells me. They can clean garbage.
Pierre takes off his glasses and introduces the boy. Pafistre. The boy stares at the ground and says nothing. His name means “don’t be shy.” Pafistre joined his militia after the police killed his mother last year. She was on the road walking to the market when the police started shooting. Pafistre was at school. When he came home, he saw a crowd of people crying outside his house. Then he started crying without knowing why.
Pierre, who runs a pharmacy and has a little money, helped arrange the funeral. The boy told him that he wanted to be a soldier. Pierre said he’d like him to be a soldier so he could get vengeance on the police.
“I gave him a big gun to shoot,” Pierre says. “We have boys smaller than him. It is nothing. He always carries my weapon. I have confidence in him.”
Pafistre pulls out a Glock 9 and points it down the alley. The other gangbangers step away. Pafistre lies on his chest, legs spread in a V behind him, and points the gun again at an imaginary target.
“If one or two of the national police come, I will show them!” Pierre shouts. “I will show them grenades, mortars! The country’s teeth are clenched. Révolution! The government wants to kill me, but I will never die!”
He leans forward.
“I will leave Cité Soleil disguised as an old woman. If the police stop me, I’ll take out my M1, eh?”
“My objective is to protect my community,” he says. “All the population backs me.”
Pafistre sights his gun at me.
“We believe in weapons and will die with weapons,” Pierre says. “They always say we are terrorists. Now we are going to show them what we mean by that.”
* * * *
As we leave Cité Soleil, we notice UN tanks forming a circle.
Pop, pop, pop . . whump, whump, whump . . .
Gang and UN gunfire. We run out to the main road, gunfire following close behind us. UN tanks race by. Police run out into the street with pump-action rifles.
“It is not safe, not safe to stay here!” Marc-oreal shouts.
We dash down a side road and crouch behind a shattered hut, joined by a European photojournalist. Three policemen kneel behind another broken building about fifty yards ahead of us. A policeman talks on a walkie-talkie across the street. In the other direction, beyond a weed-filled canal, stand the huts of a Cité Soleil neighborhood. I see gangbangers turn in our direction. I look again at the cop on the walkie-talkie.
“Cross fire,” I say.
“Why are we standing here, then?” Mar-oreal shouts.
We run and slide behind some rubble. Six police pull up in a pickup. The first group of police run across the street to the truck and get in. I hear the ignition turn, grind to a stop. It won’t start. They wave their guns at another truck swerving around them and demand to be towed.
Pop, pop, pop . . .
The police scramble on the ground like crabs, tying a rope from one truck to the other. A bus races through without stopping, almost striking the trucks.
I feel something behind me. My shoulders tighten. I turn around. A policeman with a black ski mask on stares down at me and points his gun at my face. My heart fills my throat.
“Go,” he says after considering us for a moment.
Marc-oreal and I run down the road. The photographer says he felt his press badge fall off his belt. He needs it to identify himself. Jesus! He runs back. Marc-oreal looks at me. I shake my head and follow him. The police shout at us from the pickup.
Pop, pop, pop . . .
A vendor waves us over. He picked up the badge.
Pop, pop, pop . . .
We bob and weave, ducking our heads as the photographer haggles over a price. Finally he settles on five dollars. The photographer looks pleased. We wait for a pause in the shooting and then start running.
* * * *
Morning. The hotel owner’s son sees me waiting for Marc-oreal, a duffle bag by my feet, on the verandah.
He brushes at lint on his palm-tree-embroidered polo shirt. His black slacks fall evenly over his ankles and the tops of his shined black shoes. He smells of aftershave.
“What do you think of Haiti? Is there hope? Not for a long time, I think. How do you clean up that mess in Cité Soleil? No, it is not that they are poor. They have no vision. Why don’t they plant trees and clean the streets? There was an election in Iraq—why not here? Will it be fair? I don’t think so. The poor people can’t read. They won’t know what they are doing. They will vote by passion.”
Marc-oreal drives up. I stand.
“What’s wrong with passion?”
The hotel owner’s son picks up a tennis racket.
“It has no reason.”
* * * *
Our car dies in Bel Air on the way to the airport. A couple of gangbangers wander toward us. They pull out their guns. I show my press badge and they apologize.
“I’m always afraid of the police, but these guys, no,” Marc-oreal tells me.
Turning to the gangbangers, he cautions, “Be prudent.”
Marc-oreal opens the hood, and the four of us stare at the engine as if by staring we can make the car start. One of the gangbangers runs off. He returns minutes later driving a battered red car belching black exhaust and riding low on its nearly flat wheels. He gets out and high-fives his partner. They sit together in the front seat and motion for Marc-oreal and me to get in.
“They will take us to the airport,” Marc-oreal says.
The gangbangers wait for us. I look at them waiting, watching. Their blank eyes sucked of life above their ludicrous little-boy grins pull me into empty sockets until I feel myself falling into black holes and can’t move.
Marc-oreal touches my arm.
“Now,” he says, “you can go.”