Dodging Bullets to Vote in Haiti's Cite Soleil

Voters in Haiti head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new president. But street fighting is so intense that Haiti's interim government will not put voting booths in Cite Soleil, a desperately poor slum in the capital of Port-au-Prince. For residents there, avoiding stray bullets is part of the daily struggle to survive.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Voters in Haiti are heading to the polls today to elect a new president. The polling comes two years after former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power. The election is not without problems. Street fighting remains so intense that Haiti's interim government will not put voting booths in one section of Port-au-Prince.

For residents there, avoiding stray bullets is part of the daily struggle to survive, as we hear in this report from Amelia Shaw.

AMELIA SHAW reporting: In his day job, Lores St.Philippe(ph) is head of missions for Doctors Without Borders, but he also moonlights as a nurse at St. Catherine's Hospital in Cite Soleil, a sprawling slum of about a quarter of a million people in the city's waterfront. The only way in is by medical convoy, which leaves downtown Port-au-Prince at 4:00.

Dr. LORES ST.PHILIPPE(Doctors Without Borders): Because yesterday was a confrontation between armed groups and U.N. troops in (unintelligible) north of Cite Soleil, our usual way to entering is Cite Soleil, so we changed today the way to enter.

SHAW: The medical convoy has four Land Rovers that carry medical workers to and from the hospital. It snakes through wide abandoned streets, past U.N. tanks, the big water tower, and through neighborhoods of burned out buildings and squat concrete homes popped with bullet holes.

When Lores arrives at the hospital compound, a teenage boy is waiting in the emergency room, his arm in heavy bandages. He says his name is Marcel(ph) Sanron(ph), and he's covered in blood.

Mr. MARCEL SANRON: (Through Translator) I was just standing in the road, when the whites shoot me for no reason. I had to lie in the road until the shooting stopped.

SHAW: Many Cité Soleil residents say U.N. troops, whom they call the whites, are to blame. But it is difficult to know where the bullets come from since many victims get hit with strays. Lareese says that the crossfire of U.N. troops and armed gangs is claiming more victims every day. In November, the hospital treated 34 gunshot wounds. In December, they treated 80. And January looks like it will bring 120 gunshot victims, the majority of whom who are women and children.

Mr. ST.PHILIPPE: We have a young girl with a bullet in the stomach, and yesterday, this is really unbelievable, but we had an infant of 11 months with a bullet in the back.

SHAW: The U.N. mission began in June 2004, three months after then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile following a violent uprising. The U.N. goal is to stabilize the country and help it prepare for presidential elections. But this task has not been easy in Cité Soleil.

Just before midnight, a heavy round of gunfire erupts outside the hospital walls, and within 15 minutes, a group of people enter carrying a young couple bleeding. They used the wooden doors of their houses as stretchers.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Then gunshots rang out and everybody runs. Two nurses hide in the corner of the operating room where doctors are operating on a woman shot in the neck. They cower in their knees and say this is the first time the bullets have hit the hospital.

Mr. ST.PHILIPPE: I don't actually what is happening, but we received two severely wounded people. One died a few minutes ago in the operating room. Then I went upstairs because they called me. And then four bullets entered inside the hospital and across the windows and they cross completely the room. And the babies (unintelligible) on the second floor are completely frightened. And so they are just in the middle of the corridor now.

SHAW: The second floor of pediatrics has been sprayed with bullets. The windows are shattered and glass covers the floor. Lores mobilizes the nurses to bring the children into the sick ward downstairs where they will be safe. The night passes quietly, but the dawn brings new tragedy. A young woman wails. Her name is Nadia(ph) Baptiste(ph). She says her 50-year old father has died during the night. He had gunshot wounds in his bowels and didn't survive the surgery.

She says the family had to borrow money to buy blood, about $26.00, and now he is dead, she says, leaving five children and 11 grandchildren. She doesn't know how they'll survive, and she says she just can't take the shooting in the slum anymore.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Gunfire continues heavily throughout the morning, and the wounded stream in through the front gate. So far, three women, two men, and a child have been carried through, and it is not yet 8:30. In the ER, a little boy of about five years old lies with a bullet wound to in his leg on the table. He says he doesn't know his last name or where he lives. He's just called Henri(ph).

HENRI (Child): (French spoken)

SHAW: He says the bullets tore through the walls of his house, and one of them hit his leg. As the doctor prods the wound with finger, Henrie says the bullet feels like fire in his leg, and he asks if someone has gone to get his mother. Lareese's shift ends at nine, and he takes the convoy back to headquarters in Petionville, leaving behind Cité Soleil. He says it isn't always easy to make the transition from a war zone back to his day job.

Mr. ST.PHILIPPE: We are not always used to be in a hospital which is just in the middle of a very intense [unintelligible]. We don't have the time to spend hours and hours on philosophical debates, on if it's justified the use of bigger machine guns and big weapons in a high density populated area.

SHAW: Lores says he just doesn't have time to mediate the conflict. All he cares about, he says, is saving its victims. For NPR News, I'm Amelia Shaw, in Port-au-Prince.

(Soundbite of music)

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