Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Myth of Haiti's Lawless Streets

The myth of Haiti's lawless streets by Inigo Gilmore in the Guardian (UK).

As a member of the media covering the tragedy in Haiti, it's with a sense of alarm and astonishment that I've witnessed how some senior aid officials have argued for withholding aid of the utmost urgency because of sensational claims about violence and insecurity, which appear to be based more on fantasy than reality.

From what I've observed, such chilling claims do not match the reality on the ground; and by trumpeting a distorted and sensational picture about the violence, some senior aid officials may be culpable of undermining the very aid effort they are supposed to be promoting. When I traveled into Haiti's disaster zone last week from the Dominican Republic, I did so alone and on a bus, whose passengers were mostly Haitians, including some living in the US. Since then, whether on the road to Port-au-Prince or within the city, I have not witnessed anyone wielding a gun, a machete or a club of any kind. Nor have I witnessed an act of violence. (I have seen one badly wounded man who had been shot in circumstances which were unclear and who was eventually rescued by US soldiers after an American reporter sought help.)

Any violence is localised and sporadic; the situation is desperate yet not dangerous in general. Crucially, it's not a war zone; it's a disaster zone – and there appears to have been little attempt to distinguish carefully between destructive acts of criminality and the behaviour of starving people helping themselves to what they can forage. For Haitians and many of those trying to help them, the overriding sentiment is that a massive catastrophe on this scale shouldn't have to wait for aid because blanket security is the absolute priority.

There's an old saying. If you are a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. At the very least, this is what happens when you put the military in charge of disaster relief. If you are the military, then everything looks like a war zone.

"Haitians here cannot understand why they're not getting help, especially as the way the violence is portrayed is not right. The people are unhappy that there's been no assistance but do you see them rioting in the streets? No.
"People are hungry and needy and yet they're being portrayed as savages. Aid is not getting there quick enough and that's sad because the solution is right there and we have the power to do it."

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