Wednesday, April 16, 2008

HAITI: manifestations

The "manifestations" in Haiti, (i.e., food riots,) actually began before we arrived on April 5th -- they had started the previous Thursday in the southern town of Les Cayes. There was another group there the first night we arrived, and they had been in Les Cayes, and witnessed the beginning of the manifestations. One of the younger guys in their group had climbed up on to the roof of the house they stayed at, and took pictures of the manifestations -- I didn't have a chance to see them, but I heard they were incredible, and not in a good way.

Sunday, things were pretty quiet -- we were able to go to church in the morning, and drive up the mountain to Kenscoff that afternoon. Monday, the manifestations spread to Port-au-Prince, but it didn't affect our plans. We were able to visit other places outside the downtown area, because the police had constructed road blocks to keep the manifestations contained.

However, Tuesday, things changed. We were not allowed to drive to CEPAM to build the chairs on Tuesday, and decided to build the chairs at the guesthouse instead. We worked all day, hearing crowds of protestors chanting and singing in the streets. We knew something was up when the generator at the gas station on the corner shut off -- everything was eerily quiet, actually. Even though the manifestations started peacefully, they escalated -- the protestors started banging on the large metal gates, breaking bottles on the gates and throwing glass, throwing stones and bricks at cars, and a bakery a few blocks away was looted. A high concentration of protestors kept gathering at the gas station on the corner, and these guys:
were dropping these:
to try and disperse crowds. This one didn't exactly reach its intended target -- instead of hitting the ground and leaking gas slowly from the ends, it speared itself on our next-door neighbor's spiky iron fence, (can you see that big hole?) and all the tear gas exploded all at once. One of our neighbors, as well as our team leader, got a big faceful of gas, and came running up into the house -- seconds later, we all could smell the gas, and ran inside and shut all the doors and windows. In the end, we were able to laugh about it -- the UN really missed their target, didn't they??

The manifestations continued into Wednesday, when things got even more intense. (Obviously, we stayed at the guesthouse again.) The protestors continued marching, shouting, and throwing things, demanding a statement from the president. We did hear gunfire a few times, quite close by -- we were told that UN troops were firing into the air to try and disperse crowds and get people to go home. Protestors also set up their own road blocks by piling tires in the streets and setting fire to them. (It smelled pretty awesome, let me tell you.) Smoke from roadblocks:
Our guesthouse management called us as soon as Preval made his statement on television, and we were all able to watch:
Folks took notes and translated for us, which was very helpful. Preval's speech was very inspiring, and he suggested solutions that would repair the situation in Haiti in the long-term, but he offered no short-term solutions to the problem. Things quieted down for a few hours, but then picked back up again around dinner time. We got a huge thunderstorm Wednesday night, which seemed to shoo most of the protestors home.

Thursday, things were quiet in Petion-Ville. Life seemed to be back to normal, as far as we could tell -- people were shopping in the street, although gas stations and most stores were closed. The manifestations did continue downtown through the rest of the week. Thursday evening, several Hatian senators gathered and called for the Prime Minister's resignation, and gave him 48 hours to do so, before they would try and oust him themselves.

Friday, we were able to leave the guesthouse a little bit, as long as we stayed in Petion-Ville, due to gas shortages. (We had to make sure we had enough gas left to get to the airport the next day!) We were able to go to the grocery store, and also take a walk through the large open-air market. We did hear one more protest pass Friday afternoon, but it seemed quite small in comparison, and very peaceful.

Saturday, we left very early for the airport, to avoid any potential manifestations that might arise due to the Prime Minister's resignation. We saw Preval on television again while waiting for our flight -- we wished we had had a translator! We left the country on time, arrived in Miami in one piece, and have been trying to follow events ever since -- the Washington Post and Miami Herald seem to have the best Haiti coverage, we've discovered.

In the end, we were safe the whole time, and mostly just bored, because we couldn't leave the guesthouse for three days straight. I've joked -- "that's what I get for travelling to a politically unstable country!"


valown said...

Thanks for the pictures and insight. I'm glad you two are OK. I thought about you being over there when I heard what was going on.

bazu said...

I've been following the stories of the food riots with great sadness. Yet another reason to decry U.S. food, agricultural, and foreign policy.