Haiti, 1993: The UN Bugout

The cook runs into the kitchen in a panic.

“They killed him, they killed him,” she screams, shaking and weeping.

I turn on the radio to find they’ve gunned down Guy Malary, Aristide’s justice minister, in the middle of town in broad daylight. I drive down there right away but it’s all over. His overturned car is riddled with bullets; his body, his driver’s, and his bodyguard’s are all lying inert among broken glass in the street in front of the church. I return home, nothing I can do. The cook says she wants to run into the hills. You can take to the hills, but there are no trees left to hide you. You can kneel in a church, or lie in a hospital bed, but there’s no sanctuary if the macoutes have orders to kill you. You might as well just put your affairs in order and wait for them at home.

The mission is imploding because of a tragedy in Mogadishu that has nothing to do with us. I receive a radio message to muster at the Hotel Christopher downtown. The parking lot is an ocean of white UN-marked Land Cruisers: it could be a Toyota convention. CNN is filming from the back of the meeting hall as the UN chief of mission announces that it is no longer safe for us to work and we are to evacuate immediately across the border to the Dominican Republic. Silence. Then as the news sinks in, an angry, confused buzz spreads across the room. Dozens of hands shoot up with a torrent of questions.

“What about our Haitian staff?”

“They’re staying?”

“What do we do with the computer files and the database of witness statements?”

“Destroy them quickly?”

“How do we protect the witnesses? The macoutes will kill them if we leave?” More silence. The staff are angry now and a young observer, shaking, voice cracking, leaps up and shouts, “Who made the evacuation decision, did you?” There’s a long, uncomfortable pause.

“UN Headquarters in New York together with UN Security here on the ground in coordination with the American Embassy.” He’s already being vague, trying to dilute the blame that will surely follow.

“Sorry, no more questions. The first plane leaves in three hours. We’re calling in all staff from around the country, and the second plane will leave tomorrow morning. And there’s a ten-pound baggage limit, so pack only essentials.”

The meeting breaks up and suddenly, from one minute to the next, life is totally changed. Observers are crying and you can feel the beginning of a roiling panic in the parking lot. Hysteria is contagious, so I get out of there quickly….

We just showed Haitians that our lives are more valuable than theirs. The logic of the mission was ours, not theirs, and so is the logic of our retreat. “Tell us the truth and we will seek justice” was our idea. “It’s too dangerous and we must evacuate” is our privilege. Neither applies to the Haitians. A ship with soldiers arrives at the dock and exits the dock. Haitians have no exit.

The most basic principle they teach you at medical school, years before you even get to touch your first patient, is “First, do no harm.” But harm is exactly what we’ve done, identifying the next victims for the assassins running Haiti. It was a vicious setup from the beginning.

SOURCE: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth, by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson (Miramax Books, 2004), pp. 172-174

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Filed under Caribbean, NGOs, war

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