Tuesday, December 14, 2010


(CBC) - By David Gutnick

The afternoon began with a stroll towards the presidential palace.

The last few days have been horrific as all across Haiti demonstrators, the police and the UN's blue-helmeted troops have clashed in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

It was "all happening in the streets," my colleagues were saying and so I wanted to see firsthand what was going on. I hadn't expected to see murder in broad daylight.

The stroll began innocently enough. Across the street were the women selling gum and shampoo, the shoeshine guy and the grandfather who makes bracelets out of watermelon seeds.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition who has reported extensively from abroad. In early 2010, he spent almost a month in Haiti, documenting the aftermath of the earthquake, and he returned again in late November for the elections and a fresh assessment. His radio documentary on the election aftermath can be heard here on The Current.

They were desperately hustling passers-by, foreign journalists mostly.

Most of the other foreigners here, the aid workers toiling for the vast array of non-governmental groups are either in lockdown or working long shifts, covering for colleagues too afraid to work.

A few blocks from the Champs de Mars plaza, where a giant tent city faces off against the presidential palace, new parents with their adopted infants plant themselves under the palm trees in hotel courtyards.

They are learning to play together behind barbed wire as they wait for the airport to open so they can fly to happier futures.

At the hotel, the swimming pool fountain and chirpy caged budgies drown out the distant pop-pop-pop of gunshots and the rhythmic political chanting.

You can almost shut your ears but not your sense of smell. Across the street the ocean of tents are alive with mould and stinky with sweat and urine.

Eleven-year-old Josephine, dancing to the "Waka, waka" from a loudspeaker, her hair in beautiful braids, tells me she misses her mom who died a couple of weeks ago. "Cholera," says an elderly woman, poking at chicken wings frying over a charcoal fire.

Every night here nameless corpses are left on the side of the road. Trucks pick them up and pile them in the morgue.

As I walk on, a skinny yellow dog pisses on garbage.

Teenage boys are dragging the larger chunks onto the streets to block the UN's armoured cars.

Acrid black smoke from burning tires sits on your tongue.

As I pass one tent city, a street preacher is haranguing the crowd — "Jesus will rid of us of misery," he is saying.

It was then I noticed a human river of yellow flowing down the hill.

Five hundred T-shirt wearing supporters of Jude Celestin, the government-backed candidate favoured by outgoing President René Préval, are heading towards a neighbourhood where they are not welcome.

Are they punks hired for a few dollars, or enthusiastic politicos? Who knows.

What is clear is that in Haiti's continuing election fiasco this is out and out provocation.

The killing looks planned
They march by and turn a corner. Young guys on the sidewalk shout out the name of rival candidate, Michel Martelly.

Two demonstrators grab one of them and drag him over to the other side of the street. A guy in a camouflage T-shirt pulls a pistol from his pants and pop-pop, another murder in broad daylight.

Then another.

The street sellers grab their wares and take off running.

A Celestin supporter quickly drags one of the bodies away.

This killing looks planned.

A guy with a camera gets it all, then quickly shoves his camera in his backpack and takes off between tents, terrified of being identified.

The guy dragging the body is later said to be one of Port-au-Prince's notorious gang leaders.

Four in the morning
Later that evening thousands of people can be seen walking away from the tent camp homes.

They are worried the demonstrators will be back to kill. There are rumours they will set tents on fire in the dead of night — at 4 a.m. to be precise.

Haiti these days is rife with rumours and threats.

In one rural community, some people were accused of spreading a white powder that was said to cause cholera. They were hacked to death with machetes.

There are tales of guns being handed out from the back of a truck in the Cité Soleil slums of Port-au-Prince.

My colleagues and I spend part of the night on a hotel roof overlooking the tent camp.

The only light comes from a few flickering candles and the headlights of UN armoured cars on patrol.

The only sound is the scraping of a machete being sharpened and dogs fighting over scraps.

4 a.m. comes and goes. I keep thinking of Josephine. Where on Earth could she be?

At 9, I go looking. She's outside, sitting on a rock, looking bored and still wearing her pink dress.

The grandmother in the next tent had invited her in for the night. They didn't light candles or talk.

The images of the street killing were broadcast on CBC and Radio-Canada.

Someone tells me the police have picked up the gang leader.

"Where did you hear that?" I ask.

"On the street," he says. "Right now in Haiti that is the only place where anything real is happening."

Go for a stroll in Port-au-Prince these days and you see how the demonstrating, the preaching, the hawking and the debating never stops. Nor does the killing.Street sellers at a quiet moment in the Champs de Mars area.

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