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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 14:45 GMT
Haiti: A nation still on edge
By Hannah Hennessy

A small boy leads his tiny brother by the hand as they walk barefoot along the dusty path.

Between them and the azure waters of the Caribbean, a pig rummages in mounds of litter festering in the blazing sun.

A street vendor in the capital
Street vendors risk their lives to eke out a meagre living
The children are naked apart from their underwear, their distended stomachs and reddish hair show they are malnourished.

Rainbow coloured buses, stuffed full of people and daubed with messages such as "Everything is just vanity" and "Love Baby" rattle past the little boys. The buses, which are known as tap-taps, judder past filthy open drains running alongside makeshift morgues and markets.

Across town, open-roofed pick-up trucks full of men in army fatigues carrying machine guns charge down the narrow streets, past little girls in immaculately clean school uniforms who do not appear to notice them.

Just metres away, banners stretch across the steep narrow streets, warning people about the threat of Aids. Below them, men and women waste away from undiagnosed diseases.

In a country with one of the worst rates of infection outside sub-Saharan Africa, for many these warnings come too late.

In a health centre in the shanty town of Carrefour, 23-year-old Zephirin wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the word, "secret". She chews on her lip as she explains how she is worried about losing her friends, family and home if she reveals she is HIV positive. Her voice cracks with sobs. The T-shirt motto is not the only secret she carries.


Near the international airport, UN peacekeepers in gleaming white tanks thunder past women trying to sell voodoo paintings or wood carvings that were mass-produced for the tourists who no longer come here.

Women on their way to work shuffle through the rubble, balancing plastic tubs full of their wares on their heads.

UN patrol
UN peacekeepers are trying to round up gang members and their guns
Street vendors still surround the main square, near the national palace, as they did in more peaceful times. But they know they risk their lives if they come here. Every day, this part of Port-au-Prince echoes with gunfire.

Since the end of September, hundreds of people have been killed or injured in a rising tide of political and gang violence in Haiti's capital. Kidnappings, shootings and beheadings are not uncommon.

Jocelyn used to sell food on the streets here. She made enough money to look after her family, but like so many others, she fled because of the fighting and now barely earns enough to feed her two children.

"If you go down there, you don't know if you'll make it out alive," she says.


Armed gangs, known as chimeres, loyal to the ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide are thought to be responsible for many of the killings. They take advantage of cramped conditions and intermittent electricity supplies to hide from police and UN troops in some of the slum areas of the city.

One of their strongholds is Belair, which rather euphemistically translates as "beautiful air". There is a nausea-inducing smell of charred metal and burnt rotting litter throughout this shanty town. Mounds of rubbish block the streets, which are scattered with the twisted skeletons of burned out cars and buses, some of them still smouldering.

Children peep out between filigree metal railings, grinning and waving at tanks of Brazilian UN peacekeepers, making a daily patrol of Belair.

The capital's streets are strewn with rubble
The tanks stop near the main square, where men and women go about their daily work. A handful of soldiers check their pistols are loaded and disappear towards one of the houses, which they believe to be a base of some armed Aristide loyalists.

Nine months after their leader fled the country, his presence is still palpable. The face of the former president peers out of posters on the ramshackle houses, while graffiti on the closely packed buildings calls Mr Aristide a hero and demands his return.

As soon as the peacekeepers get back into the tank, several shots ring out.

It could be interpreted as a message: "We're here and we're not afraid of you. But nor are we going to directly target you."

The lieutenant in charge of the patrol acknowledges that they do not always feel in control of the situation.

Since peacekeepers arrived in June, this has been a recurring observation and they have often been accused of being too reactive.

Six months after the United Nations Stabilisation Mission began in Haiti, the force will shortly reach full deployment.

The Brazilian general commanding the troops says this will enable them be more successful in rounding up the gang members and their guns.

He hopes they can work with the interim government to end the violence and secure democratic elections.

But like so many people in Haiti he knows that ending the violence is not the only task.

Until the hunger, hopelessness and health crises are tackled, Haitians will continue to suffer.


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