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Month: May 2012

strange theatre


I snapped this photo at about a quarter to four on the afternoon of March 29. A friend had called me up an hour or two earlier, saying — Hey, the ex-military are going on parade, do you want to join them? We were there within the hour, the only journalists in sight. This image was taken just down the road from their base. I posted it to Twitter with the following caption: “Ex-FAdH military en route to #PAP. Crowds cheer. Just a regular Thursday afternoon in Carrefour…”

I remember hearing about ex-military training and recruitment camps in March of last year. They were called Lame Woz, President Martelly’s pink army, held up by some as evidence of his fascist, repressive tendencies. Busy with other matters, I mostly ignored the reports for a full year. When the militarized groups began to clash with the national police two months ago, I finally paid them a visit.

A few of my shots from March 29’s parade were picked up far and wide. I saw them pop up in a handful of Haitian newspapers and sites, and the above shot especially made quite a few rounds on Facebook. A neighbour emailed it to me days later, saying: “You can thank [our electrician] and his Blackberry for this photo, taken on Canapé Vert.”

The photos stirred up some panic. These men and women in army green look armed, but they were not armed. They were not aggressive. They were playing out a scenario, in the theatre of Port-au-Prince.

The military term “theatre” is apt, as so much of what I’ve seen unfold over the past two and a half months has involved some level of acting, posturing, and scripted conflict. But I no longer know who is benefitting. I no longer know who, if anyone, is controlling the curtains.


I put together a doc for CBC Radio One’s Dispatches, but as is always the case, a few points got left on the cutting room floor or didn’t make it into the final script at all.

One is that this military narrative has changed over time. They’ve gone from cursing the tactical units of the national police to praising them as brothers. I accompanied them to the same police station they had once threatened to take by force, and they were hugging and shaking hands with the officers, smiles all around.

Another is that they feel they’ve been lied to. They’ve long said that the current president — a long time fan of Haiti’s military — had encouraged them last year, and even paid them a visit during his campaign while they were training at a different base. These men (and women) say they were encouraged to continue drilling and recruiting so that they could be ready for when the army is officially re-instated. Now the official line is that these groups must be dismantled, and the plan for a modern army revival is to be shelved for a time.

Today, May 18th, Haitian Flag Day, they’ve promised to ride the streets again. They say they’ll bring their guns out. Some of them, feeling bolder, say they’ll meet resistance with violence. They’ve been painted variously as a menace or as a band of clowns. I’m not sure they’re either.

There’s always more to it than that. This is about pride, about past, and to an extent, about sovereignty. This is about plot twists that could have been. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, in today’s act, nothing more than a few already-bruised egos get hurt.



sispann pedi

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

/james baldwin

I landed back in PAP a few weeks ago after a short time away, and returned to a city floating in a strange, grey, time warp limbo. My American Airlines flight hadn’t bothered to update to Haiti’s new timezone, so their clocks were still behind. When its plane full of clapping passengers touched down, joyed to arrive alive, they were already an hour late. President Michel Martelly’s office had announced the timezone switch late on a Friday evening in early March — a heads up of 30 hours for a population mostly deprived of electricity — to match the springing-forward of the north. None of this seemed to matter to the airline; early, late, it was all immaterial. The sky looked heavy as I walked outside. Thick air, humid and choked with car exhaust, smoke. It was uncomfortable. The long, uneasy week that followed was without sun, flush with rowdy rains day and night. Everything seemed more tense. Everything seemed more weird.

It wasn’t always like this. There had been some optimism early this year, a different energy, a feeling that, slowly, things might get better. I know I didn’t imagine it. I hope I didn’t imagine it. That mood began to wobble around Carnival, in February. A slap on the wrist for ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier after a year-long investigation, gossip-fueling feuds between the president and prime minister, defiant bacchanale excess in Les Cayes, and finally on the 24th, the resignation of the four-month-term head of government. Political turmoil, it was called. A string of high-profile murders. An early start to rainy season. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I can pinpoint when it fell apart.

It began the week the earthquakes came back.

The evening of March 7 , a Wednesday, I was at a friend’s place in the high hills of Petionville when the quake hit. I didn’t feel it, but even if I had, I don’t have traumatic memories to draw on. This small tremor sent people running into the streets, panicked, the apocalyptic horror of douz janvye flooding back like no time had passed. It was enough to give many Port-au-Prince residents a sleepless night and to keep them on edge for the days that followed.

And like clockwork, two senators went on the radio the next day to stoke that tension. They announced, separately, that there would be a mad panic in the capital soon, and advised listeners to be home by 4 pm for the sake of their safety. Rumours had already swirled for weeks that former President Jean Bertrand Aristide would be arrested, and the announcement of a sudden, mysterious press conference at the National Palace did nothing to allay the frightened chaos. When I went out later that evening, the streets were ghostly. Not a single police patrol in sight.

After that came Friday, the 9th. The day played out slowly, gingerly. There had been no catastrophe the night before. People went back to work. Vendors spread their fruits and cell phone cables and dried biscuits out to sell. Tap-taps and taxis laboured up and down their usual hills. Another minor earthquake hit — and this one I felt. Another high-profile assassination. That evening, at 8:23 pm, an abrupt announcement from the office of the president landed in my inbox, decreeing the adoption of a new timezone the following night. The chatter over the left field time change overshadowed another drama — a standoff between national police and rogue paramilitaries in Carrefour. The bizarre scene played out for hours on 104.9 FM: demobilized soldiers and their new recruits from three bases spread across the metropolitan area threatened to storm a police station where one of their own was being held, arrested on a traffic violation. A nameless national palace representative ordered the police to release their suspect, a former sergeant went on air to order the enraged paramilitaries back to their respective bases, and a temporary peace was declared. Not their last public flexing of power.

A weekend of disquiet.

Monday morning opened with a morbid editorial digest in Le Nouvelliste: “Haiti is open for… crisis?” The insecurity, the murders, the political bickering, and the unsubtle “Trojan War” being scripted by so many professional tragedians had convened to crush the last remaining optimism of a new year. Haiti’s positive re-branding campaign seemed empty. There was a heavy, disappointing sense of being trapped in a familiar time warp. The mood “is gloomy, and the old demons will come back to haunt this country if we do not take lessons from history.”

Two months later, I don’t know how to measure the mood anymore. I do not revel in the negative. My mind often wanders back to those intense 72 hours in March, though there have been many more highs and lows since: a new prime minister and Cabinet, a surge in cholera, a reduction in IDP camps, increased settlement south of Titanyen, disappearing rubble piles, a corruption scandal involving the president and a DR senator, more kids in school, road-choking protests over a police officer’s murder, gold medal beer, rain, rain, rain. I’m told that American Airlines has adjusted its timezone for Haiti by now. At least the time, if not the timing, is right.