Following a long day experiencing the post-apocalyptic anarchy that is Port-au-Prince, I thought the leafy suburbs of Petionville, which are the center of gravity for Haiti’s elite and home to many businesses and banks, would be a welcome place to sip a cool drink and decompress:
However, that mental picture of Petionville was pretty effectively smashed upon arriving in the center of town:
Following the earthquake in 2010, a flood of refugees moved up to Petionville to look for shelter and work. Whether the similarities between Port-au-Prince and Petionville were always present or if the similarities are a result of the population pressure from the hordes of refugees, I do not know. But, I suspect it has always been like this:
That’s one of the refugee encampments off to the right:
The local fixer we hired for the day informed us that those with wealth here are either politicians or drug dealers… And judging from the characters within the luxury SUVs that would occasionally push through the crowds, I would say his assessment seemed to be on the money:
Place Saint-Pierre is at the heart of Petionville. The picture below is of the Saint-Pierre church which overlooks the park and square… Unlike Port-au-Prince, Petionville was not badly damaged by the earthquake:
Apparently, Place Saint-Pierre used to be a lovely park. However, following the earthquake, it has been completely taken over by refugees and their tents as you can see below:
We briefly stopped at the edge of the park with our fixer. Almost immediately, a small group started to coalesce around us and we noticed a wave of unspoken hostility emanating from the Haitians. An animated conversation between the group and our fixer followed, but after several minutes all was smiles and laughter.
After we left the park, our fixer explained to me that since we are white, the Haitians assumed we were affiliated with the United Nations and wanted to drag us into the tent city and out of sight in order to murder us! Fortunately, however, he was able to convince them that we were civilians.
Life isn’t worth much in Haiti… Without fully realizing it at the time, that’s one of the closer calls I have had.
The official name of the UN operation in Haiti is Minustah. Haitians simply refer to all UN personnel as “the ministers” as a twist on the pronunciation of Minustah.
The UN are really hated here and there are all of the usual reasons for this hatred (as well as a few reasons specific to Haiti)…
One source of resentment is that which I observed in Afghanistan – the impression that the UN just drives around in their air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers and seem impotent and incapable of accomplishing a single thing to improve the lives of those that they are supposedly there to help. Fair or not, that impression is common in many parts of the world. The disappointment this impression engenders soon mutates into a poisonous contempt.
And, of course, there is resentment and jealousy at the differences in standard of living. This is part of the old “haves” versus “have nots” story. Someone that has to pick through trash in order to find something to eat will naturally resent someone whose armed guards drop them off at restaurants where they drink and socialize with other UN and NGO staff while barely touching the feasts laid out for them. In other words, when your life is shit, you’re going to resent someone that seems to have a great life, particularly when they seem to be there just profiting off of your misery. After all, if you and many of your countrymen were not miserable, they wouldn’t be there earning their large salary and enjoying their large expense account, would they?
Also, one Haitian told me that “the ministers” get in the way of the Haitians settling scores and killing each other which makes them an irritant and a source of tension for various gangs and political groups. These groups do what they can to undermine the UN and NGOs.
Many things are the same everywhere…
I shot this video out the window of our taptap as we made our way back down to Port-au-Prince. It is one of the quieter areas of Petionville, but I think it gives a good feel for the town and street life in Haiti: