UN soldiers are thought to have inadvertently started a cholera epidemic in the poverty-stricken island. Channel 4 News reports from the beleaguered country – four years after the earthquake.
Watching a sickly man spitting into a bucket by his bed while the piercing shrieks of tiny babies in distress ring out around him, it was difficult to comprehend that three years after the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, thousands are still getting ill and dying.
We had come to a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Leogane, a 30 minute drive from the capital Port au Prince, a town which has the unfortunate distinction of being the epicentre of the earthquake. That mega-earthquake claimed an estimated 316,000 lives, according to the government. It was towards the end of 2010, some nine months after the quake, that cholera struck Haiti for the first time.
Just as the world promised to rebuild Haiti after the quake, so too it promised to rid the shattered country of this scourge. Now here we were, more than three years on, walking around a cholera ward where young and old, ravaged by their grim living conditions, were clinging to life after being infected by this insidious disease.
A distraught woman, watching tenderly over her fragile sick baby, who doctors said had fungus spreading inside her mouth, told me: “She was just crying, she was crying for three days. So we drove her here. She had diarrhoea in the car. We got here and they ran some tests. It revealed she had cholera.”
I have been coming to Haiti regularly since the earthquake and, despite all the promises and pledges, the country has slowly slid off the international agenda, and aid budgets are being slashed. This is having a catastrophic impact on the urgent need to deal with another spike of cholera cases.
“There are less and less treatment centres, less organisation, so the number of deaths is increasing,” Kenneth Lavelle, a senior MSF official in Haiti, told me. “In this area MSF is the only organisation looking after cholera patients. Everyone else – including the ministry of health – are not engaged, and that is absolutely unacceptable.”
United Nations peacekeeping troops have been accused of being the source of the cholera outbreak. In October 2010 it was claimed that excrement from the newly arrived unit at a base in Mirebelais was seen spewing from the base into the river, and locals claimed that the area around the base was the location of the start of the outbreak.
Jonathan Katz, an American journalist and author, who broke the story about how UN soldiers were linked to the outbreak and has followed the story closely ever since, told Channel 4 News: “Since the epidemic began, the UN has ignored, dissembled, or obfuscated the overwhelming evidence that its soldiers brought cholera to Haiti. Its leaders would just rather not talk about it.”
Haiti had never had a recorded case of cholera before 2010. Proof of its source is not definitive, but the scientific evidence from international and local experts has been stacking up. In Haiti cholera has been coming in waves since the first infections were reported in 2010. Since then, close to 700,000 have been infected and over 8,000 have died.
Since the epidemic began, the UN has ignored, dissembled, or obfuscated the overwhelming evidence that its soldiers brought cholera to Haiti – Jonathan Katz
We travelled to villages near the UN base where many are still getting infected from cholera-infested water. In one family we met, every single person in the extended family had been infected, and some had died. We also visited a remote village two hours downstream from Mirebelais, and there again it was the same story.
Villagers stepped forward to tell us about the loss of their loved ones. One old man told how he lost his brother, a cousin and his two children. He seemed shell-shocked.
They took me to a nearby cemetery. Sprouting out from the undergrowth, blue plastic sheeting was clearly visible. They told me how they wrapped the bodies in plastic and buried them hurriedly in unmarked graves, fearing the spread of contagion. There’s no dignity in death when cholera strikes. First there was sorrow – now there’s real anger.
Some of the villagers condemned the UN saying they had only brought misery – and they demanded help and compensation of their losses.
It’s nearly 10 years since UN stabilisation mission in Haiti was launched. It’s the third largest peacekeeping operation in the world, even though Haiti has not been at war. The UN mission has endured a fractious relationship with Haitians – its forces accused in dozens of rape and sexual abuse cases – and now of bringing cholera.
The victims’ cause has been taken up by Haiti’s leading human rights lawyer, Mario Joseph, who is seeking compensation from the UN for over 5,000 Haitian victims whose plight, he says, is being ignored.
“The problem is, the UN has two kinds of human rights – human rights for rich people, human rights for poor people,” Joseph told me at his office in Port au Prince.
In conjunction with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, he has now launched a lawsuit in New York’s federal court to challenge the UN’s claims of immunity to prosecution.
But over at UN headquarters in Port au Prince there’s a refusal to even discuss the issue.
Sophie de Caen, the UN’s Humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, would not answer questions about the UN’s responsibility for the cholera outbreak and its consequence. “Why won’t the UN admit it’s responsible for the outbreak?” I asked her.
She replied: “I can’t comment on that side, we’re not supposed to comment on issues investigated by our legal department.”
I countered: “But this is more than a legal issue it’s a moral one.”
Again, she batted the question back at me, saying: “I can’t comment on it. What’s more important is how we deal with it now.”
The problem is that critics say the UN and Haitian government, for all their promises, is not dealing with the cholera crisis now. The Haitian government is saying it’s working with the UN on a 10-year plan to rid Haiti of cholera. But the aid agencies, trying to hold back a disease that’s already claimed over 8,000 Haitian lives, say it’s an emergency right now.
Kenneth Lavelle, the MSF official, said: “What we’re more concerned about is that people don’t have access to treatment. The number of cases is increasing. Who’s going to treat these people today? Who is thinking about the needs of Haitian people today?”
Mario Joseph is filled with righteous indignation. Speaking passionately and with force, he explained how he is determined that the UN will be held to account and justice will be done. “They kill us, they rape us, they sodomise us, they give us cholera. The UN promotes due process, rule of law, the human rights. They need to give the Haitian people their day in court.”
But as he seeks his day in court against the UN, it seems he won’t be getting much help from his own health ministry – which is clearly reluctant to take on the world body.
During a bizarre interview with Dr Marie Guirlaine Raymond, Haiti’s health ministry’s director general, she too would not be drawn on whether they supported Mr Joseph’s efforts to get compensation for the Haiti’s cholera victims. Fed up with my repeated attempts to get her to answer where she stood on the issue, she eventually got up and marched out of her office, jumped in her chauffeur-driven car and scooted off.
But just today Congressman John Conyers, along with 65 other members of Congress, wrote Ambassador Samantha Power, the permanent representative to the United Nations, about the UN’s inadequate response to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Specifically, the letter detailed how in October 2010, UN peacekeepers in Haiti introduced cholera to the Caribbean nation and urged the UN to take immediate legal responsibility for the resulting harms.
Four years ago the world responded to Haiti’s massive earthquake with promises to rebuild the country, and make it better than before. Four ago on many pledges still remain unfulfilled – and the world body strands accused of heaping more misery on this ravaged people. As the dead continue to pile up, for Haitians the ongoing cholera epidemic -and the UN’s refusal to accept any responsibility for it – is a lingering stain on the entire international community. It’s one that will not easily be erased.