I went to a food and water distribution today for 50,000 in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s poorest and most infamous neighborhood. For all that the United Nations and the U.S. are always claiming how safe the neighborhood has become in recent years, they brought an eye-popping number of heavily armed soldiers along. Better to be safe than sorry, one Brazilian blue helmeted soldier told me, since more than 4,000 prisoners escaped during the earthquake and many, they suspect, came back to Cite Soleil, though there has been no overt resurgence of gang activity in the area.
So, it’s striking when the U.S. and Brazilian militaries need so much protection to help the denizens of this poor neighborhood that U.S. camera crews would go in with little or no security. Haitians are a naturally egalitarian society: what one person gets the other wants. Just be fair about it. If you want to give water to someone, better be prepared to give water to every person in sight. I found this out the hard way when I began to give out my business card and started a mini-rush. Even though I kept explaining to them the cards couldn’t help them they all wanted what the other person had.
It’s been frustrating then, to watch foreign, especially U.S., news crews pull up to Cite Soleil and start walking down the street with cameras and lights and audio booms. Of course, they would cause a stir. And then all it takes is one card handed out, one bottle of water given to a child in sympathy and it provokes a stampede of folks all under the misapprehension that there’s some form of aid to be had. Jostling begins and suddenly, BREAKING NEWS THERE’S RIOTING IN HAITI!!! Personally, I have seen no real riots: after the tv crews sprint back to the vehicles the crowd disbands and everyone goes home. But the longer the tv crew remains the more violent the crowd gets: people are desperate especially when they think they’re vying for a few pieces of food or water that they may not get if they’re not out in front. The UN, for example, hired Haitians with megaphones to walk up and down the line assuring people this morning that everyone on line would receive food and water – this calms down the ones behind and stops them from pushing to the front. TV crews obviously don’t do this and, I was told by some U.S. military sources, are potentially leaving behind hurt, injured or dead from the mini-riots they incite.
There have been some violent clashes with looters, but that again goes to the egalitarian nature of this people: one of the cardinal rules is you do not take what is not yours. That’s not fair. Mobs, like the one I saw two days ago beating a looter to death, are quick and efficient. They disbursed the minute the man was dead and paid absolutely no attention to me or my fixer on the side of the road.