Violence-Plagued Haiti Sees More Peaceful Days

Children play around a patrol of Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. i i

Children play around a patrol of Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti — once one of the country's most dangerous slums. Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
Children play around a patrol of Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Children play around a patrol of Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti — once one of the country's most dangerous slums.

Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
A Brazilian U.N. peacekeeper patrols the streets of Cite Soleil. i i

A U.N. peacekeeper patrols the streets of Cite Soleil. Residents are more trusting of the current U.N. troops — in part because they are Brazilian and Brazil is the favorite team among soccer-crazy Haitians. Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
A Brazilian U.N. peacekeeper patrols the streets of Cite Soleil.

A U.N. peacekeeper patrols the streets of Cite Soleil. Residents are more trusting of the current U.N. troops — in part because they are Brazilian and Brazil is the favorite team among soccer-crazy Haitians.

Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
A young man laughs as children swim next to a pier in Cite Soleil. i i

A young man laughs as children swim next to a pier in Cite Soleil. Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
A young man laughs as children swim next to a pier in Cite Soleil.

A young man laughs as children swim next to a pier in Cite Soleil.

Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
Fishermen sing as they mend a fishing net in Cite Soleil. i i

Fishermen sing as they mend a fishing net in Cite Soleil. Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR
Fishermen sing as they mend a fishing net in Cite Soleil.

Fishermen sing as they mend a fishing net in Cite Soleil.

Jean-Cyril Pressoir for NPR

Haiti has long been associated with political turmoil, kidnapping and violence. But with the election last year of Rene Preval and a new robust mandate by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country has been experiencing a much-needed respite from insecurity and violence.

Take the Port-au-Prince area of Cite Soleil, for example. It was once the most violent neighborhood in Haiti. But now, residents say there is no more fighting.

"Back then, we would be going out, and we could get shot. It wasn't good for us. Now things are better, and we thank God. There's no more shooting," says Jacques Sonny Simea, a 33-year-old fisherman.

'Special Moment' in History

U.N. peacekeeping troops have been in Haiti since the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Under the interim government, the troops were ineffectual at best, negligent at worst. Crime and violence raged unchecked.

The 2006 election of President Rene Preval marked a turning point.

"Haiti is living a very special moment in its history," says Edmond Mulet, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative to Haiti. "I think that it is an exceptional moment. We have the right ingredients.... I think that Haiti has an enormous potential."

Mulet says it was difficult for the U.N. to confront the problems of violence during the interim government, which he says didn't have a "legitimate voice."

In fact, the interim government jailed political opponents — mostly belonging to Aristide's party — without charge. The temporary leadership was bolstered by the United States, France and Canada.

Now, the U.N. has managed to control security because of Preval, whom Mulet describes as a private man who is trying to be a uniting figure in a country that has experienced decades of political turmoil.

New President Tackles Violence

One of Preval's first goals upon taking office was to control the violence. He opened up negotiations with the gangs in Cite Soleil, but they demanded money and passports so that they could leave the country.

The president lost patience and asked the U.N. forces now under Brazilian military commander Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz to take them on. And Santos Cruz says they did.

"The situation changed because we controlled all the neighborhoods," Santos Cruz says, adding that many gang leaders were arrested and are now jailed.

Figures provided by the U.N. show the dramatic downward trend in the violence nationwide. In January 2006, there were 240 attacks on U.N. troops. Over the past four months, there have been only 12. Kidnappings are down as well: six in June, compared to 162 in December 2005.

Despite Deaths, U.N. Troops Welcomed in Slum

Still, the success hasn't come without cost. U.N. troops have been accused of killing innocent civilians during their operations.

Human rights lawyer Mario Joseph, who is associated with the former party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, says he has the death certificates of 22 people whom he says were killed by U.N. forces in December when they made their first big assault into Cite Soleil.

The seaside slum has historically been a bastion of support for Aristide, and Joseph contends that the raids were punitive. Santos Cruz, the head of the U.N. forces, denies the charge.

While the scars of the fighting are everywhere in Cite Soleil, the residents say they trust these troops more.

Part of the reason is that they are Brazilian: Haiti is a soccer-mad country, and Brazil is their favorite team.

Resident Ingado Pierre, 17, says that the people of Cite Soleil have also begun to take more responsibility, too.

"We want peace and to live well," he says.

Despite Gains, Poverty Remains

Furious building is going on at city hall, another sign of improving times. But while everyone concurs that security has improved, Haiti is still a place of abject poverty. There is no fighting, but there also is still no work.

Jacques Sonny Simea, the fisherman, says he can now walk to the market without fear, but he has no money with which to buy food.

"We're still in misery and hunger over here," Simea says. "What happened before doesn't happen anymore, but we're still hungry."

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