A few experiences from Haiti.
Protesters running through the streets carrying a coffin with the name of then president, Michel Martelly, whom they said they wanted in a box.
During the winter of 2013 I was following the news intently on what was then taking place between the Dominican Republic and the nation of Haiti. There had been a court ruling in DR that permitted the revocation of citizenship from people of Haitian descent, creating so called “ghost citizens”. Stateless individuals that now lacked the necessary documentation to work, receive health care, schooling and the right to reside in either nation. This was a blatant violation of human rights and was received with condemnation by human rights groups around the world.
In order to understand a bit more about this, we have to rewind the clock a little. Both nations sit side by side on the island of Hispaniola, as it was formerly known. Back in the day, self-liberated slaves came together to oust their French colonial rulers, gaining their independence in 1804 and creating the nation of Haiti. Haiti in turn came to rule the entire island years later, that was until 1844 when Dominicans revolted against them and a bloody war ensued. Finally in 1856 Dominicans came out on top and gained their own independence from Haitian rule. Fast forward to 2013 and tensions were as high as they had ever been, with both nations maintaining constant animosity towards each other since that time.
With these latest tensions coming to a head I thought it would be the perfect time to visit the island. This was during a time in which Haiti was still recovering from the damages of the earthquake of 2010. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and it has taken years for the nation to return to some kind of normalcy. Haitians will often flock to the Dominican Republic in search of jobs and better living conditions for their families, this only adds to the tensions between both nations.
I quickly spread the word between friends of mine and found, through an acquaintance, another photographer who worked with a local ministry. He gave me an invaluable contact on the ground, a local fixer in Port Au Prince. Remedor had been recommended to me because he was a trustworthy individual, he knew the area well and had grown up in the roughest part of Haiti, so he had wide ranging contacts. He was from a place called Cite Soleil, considered one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere. To give you an idea of this place, in 2004 the UN called it “the most dangerous place on earth” it has also been described as “a microcosm of all the ills in Haitian society; endemic unemployment, illiteracy, non-existent public services, unsanitary conditions, widespread crime and armed violence.” Rape, murder, kidnapping, extortion and shootings are common place.
Walking through the central market in Port Au Prince, a U.N. truck passing us to our right.
My plan was twofold, I wanted meet the local organizers and document the protests as they happened and I wanted to visit a school and a hospital in a remote community to see if I could help in any way. Sounds simple enough but it requires something I didn’t have at the time and that’s called “access”. Running up to the day of my arrival I had been in communication with Remedor via email and Skype trying to coordinate all of these things. As a foreigner it would be difficult for me to gain reliable contacts on my own without the help of someone there. Another major barrier was language, I skipped French class and studied Japanese in high school, shout out to my sensei Mrs. Harumi for putting up with me during that time.
The organizers of these protests won’t talk to just anyone, they are especially suspicious of foreigners and even more so, of foreigners with cameras and voice recorders. That being said, it was Remedors job to help me track these people down, explain to them the purpose of our visit and act as a go between. Employing his own methods to get these people to say, “Yes, I’ll lend you a bit of my time.“
Remedor helping me record audio while I work with my camera at a makeshift school in Camatin.
I touched down at Toussaint Louverture on Dec 3, and met him as I walked out of the airport. The harsh mid-day sun glistened off his sweat beaded forehead; “Hello my brother!”, he kept saying, speaking to me with a heavy Creole accent. Remedor was only a few years older than me, he had managed to get out of the slums by learning English and working with foreigners like myself. He worked mainly by translating and navigating the bureaucracy that exists in places like Haiti, where obtaining the proper stamps and government seals on any paperwork takes forever, unless of course you grease the hands of everyone involved along the way.
First order of business was to find a reliable form of communication, eight dollar Alcatels are the way to go. They include the essentials, a flash light, an AM/FM radio tuner and an addictive little game called snake, plus no one wants to steal these on the street. At first glance Port Au Prince didn’t strike me too different from many of the third world countries I had visited or the few that I had lived in. But there were areas, specifically those that had never been rebuilt after the earthquake, that made it seem like you were walking through a place abandoned centuries ago. This was especially true at night, in the area of the Marcher de Fer, bustling with activity during the day but when the sun came down it turned pitch black. Ruined buildings silhouetted against the night sky, the odd shadow moving in the darkness, a single barrel burning with debris struggling to light the penumbra that was slowly devouring it.
I phoned home as Remedor drove me to my hotel and the next day we started early. A few of the organizers and some of the politicians involved knew him, so this made things considerably easier. We sat down with one of the organizers who gave me insight on the structure of the protests and those involved. He explained that each neighborhood consisted of several groups of men and women who answered to a single group leader. Each of these leaders answered to a community organizer tasked with larger sectors of the city and those guys in turn answered directly to the politicians in charge. In this way messages could trickle down effectively from top to bottom depending on what the politicians desired.
An estimated ten thousand people filled the streets that day in protest of the court rulings against Hatians in The Dominican Republic.
The protests started at a meeting point in a neighborhood overlooking the harbor in Port Au Prince, Ra Ra bands formed and started playing while people began making fires in the middle of the street and shouting slogans against The Dominican Republic. Remedor had warned me earlier to be careful when speaking Spanish, because of the danger of being mistaken for a Dominican amongst the people. Masses started to gather at this initial point and soon the protest was under way, it would pass through all the major neighborhoods of Port Au Prince, gathering more and more supporters along its route. Soon there would be thousands in the streets, thousands of angry people, pissed off at what was taking place next door to them, their goal: To burn down the Dominican Embassy in the neighborhood of Petion-Ville.
It was apparent that Remedor was well known in these circles, we would run into groups of protesters that would greet him as we ran along the streets. We also had to stay vigilant in case anyone started shooting, amongst regular civilians there were a small number of armed groups, that if given the word, would not hesitate to start a confrontation. Then there were the U.N. soldiers which at the time were still on missions on the island supporting the Haitian police forces. All of this made for a tense environment, U.N. forces were notorious for shooting into crowds of protesters in the past and the people expected no less of them. We tried to stay as close to the front of the protest as possible, careful not to lag behind, which according to Remedor, was where people would often be shot. We started running at 6:30 am and we would do so on and off until around 4 pm that day. It was muggy, it was hot, and it was tense.
Police units raced along side protestors to try and maintain order and make sure looting didn't occur.
Heavily armed police units would drive alongside protesters in the streets. Children, dressed in blue and white uniforms lined the roofs of their schools peering down at the masses below them. Some demonstrators ran with signs, one group carried a coffin through the streets with the name of then president, Michel Martelly, warning him of what was to come due to his lack of action on the matter. I saw a few journos with bullet proof vests and helmets riding on the back of motorcycles.
Signs like this were common place, urging people to take a stance against the Dominican Republic.
Remedor was running alongside me the entire time but somewhere along the way we became separated among the chaos in the streets. People ran screaming, angry individuals kicked in the doors of businesses purported of being owned by Dominicans, others chanted slogans, often times angry protestors would approach my lens and yell all the things they had bottled up for me to capture.
A local politician with armed escort yelled orders to protestors, they were the ones in charge of what was taking place.
Police vehicles were now sporadic, anti-riot units had advanced ahead of the crowds trying to secure Petion-Ville before the protesters reached the site. I was photographing a local politician riding around with armed escorts when suddenly I was approached by a group of men, one holding a pamphlet depicting Haitians that had been murdered days priors in conflicts taking place on the border. According to him they had been killed by Dominican soldiers, but there was something key about the way he chose to communicate this, he did so in Spanish. This same group would follow me throughout the protest and approach me several times to try and speak with me in Spanish. It was apparent that they were looking for Dominicans like Remedor had warned me.
We arrived at Petion-Ville and fell behind U.N. lines which guarded against protester trying to reach the Dominican Embassy.
I caught up with Remedor not long after and we soon reached Petion-Ville, gained access behind the U.N. lines where the protestors had been forced to stop. Despite the turn out and the anger about what was happening to their people in The Dominican Republic, the embassy wasn’t burned down that day, I approached the same politician which I had photographed earlier, he was giving orders not to do so. “It would make things worse for Haitians living in The Dominican Republic and would not change a thing.” he said..…..I agreed with his sentiment.
Remedor translating for me as I address school children at Camatin. The older children at the very left act as school teachers, the majority had not finished high school.
Remedor would go on to help me forge connections with other individuals in Haiti on that trip. We visited a makeshift school where children were teaching children due to a complete lack of teachers. Their parents incapable of sending them to study elsewhere because they didn’t have the money to do so. We visited a hospital for HIV/AIDS patients that lacked basic medicine for these people who were dying of the disease. I would jump off a bus and find myself surrounded by children asking me for money or food, “Blanc! Blanc!” they would yell. I thank Remedor for guiding me through this humbling experience, for watching my back whenever possible and helping me throughout my trip. I also thank the Haitian people for allowing me to witness, if briefly, a bit of their reality.