By Michael Matza
CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, HAITI – For five years, Myrlene “Mimi” Dominique managed a nonprofit medical clinic in Cite Soleil, the shantytown of scavenged-tin shacks and 300,000-plus residents trapped by the most gruesome poverty in the Western hemisphere.
Located in the slum’s Bois Neuf section, the clinic “took care of their needs,” said Dominique, who worked there until 2012. “But I never knew the hurt they were going through inside.”
A 2016 side gig as an interpreter for the film It Stays With You: Use of Force by U.N. Peacekeepers in Haiti, a 50-minute documentary released in the fall, brought her back to her network of contacts and opened her eyes to the collateral damage wrought by a series of militarized raids a decade ago by U.N. peacekeepers. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, which began in 2004, was to provide security after the rebellion that ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The 2005-2007 raids by the multinational U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by the French acronym MINUSTAH, were designed to dislodge criminal gangs, including one that agitated for Aristide’s return to power.
In a pre-dawn raid on July 6, 2005, which is described in the film, the blue-helmeted MINUSTAH soldiers killed the pro-Aristide gang leader, Emmanual “Dread” Wilme, and six of his followers. Wilme’s supporters fought for hours using sniper fire, heavier guns and Molotov cocktails.
For its part, MINUSTAH said it used armored personnel carriers, 22,700 automatic rifle rounds, 78 grenades and five mortars.
Also killed in the 12-hour firefight were about two dozen innocent residents of Bois Neuf. Their stories, and the testimonies of their survivors, drive the film, which was funded in part by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
While responsibility for those deaths was never fully investigated, many of the survivors attributed the fatalities to MINUSTAH, and said that some of the victims were struck inside their homes when rounds sprayed from a helicopter pierced their corrugated metal roofs.
Dominique translated the on-camera interviews, which were conducted by the film’s producer/director team of Siobhan Wills, a professor of law at the Transitional Justice Institute of Ulster University, and Cahal McLaughlin, chair of the film studies department at Queen’s University Belfast. Both have published widely on international humanitarian law and human rights.
The aim of the film, its producers said in a statement, is to raise awareness of the long-term effects of the use of deadly force on Cite Soleil, within the U.N. and beyond, and to advocate for an investigation.
“I don’t think they’ll ever get justice,” Wills said by phone from her office in Northern Ireland. “But what I would like is for the U.N. to conduct a transparent investigation.”
In one scene, Eveline Pierre tells the filmmakers that her 10-year-old daughter, Vanne Elisma, was inside their corrugated steel shack when she was hit by a stray bullet and later died. In the same incident, she said, her husband, Edren Elisma, was wounded in one wrist.
“From 3 a.m. until 2 p.m. we were cowering under the bullets,” said Pierre. “I had another neighbor who called out, ‘God save me.’ … The husband called out, ‘Don’t go out!’ But she ran out [and] was killed along with her two children.”
The filming was emotionally grueling for both the subjects and the film‘s crew. Dominique said she felt a bit like a psychiatrist, shedding light on pain never fully expressed, and incidents never fully investigated.
“People always say, ‘Let bygones be bygones, let the cat sleep,’” said Dominique. “But for 10 years nobody cared to listen to these survivors.”
The film premiered June 2 at Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libete – the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty, a democracy-building nonprofit in Port-au-Prince – and was followed by a screening at the Université d’Etat d’Haiti on June 5.
Later that month it premiered in Europe at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. In a discussion afterwards, Conor Gearty, a London School of Economics professor, said the movie “gets to the essence” of communicating about human rights by “trying to get people to see people who are not themselves,” people “who are quite far away from us, not just geographically, but metaphorically as well.”
The film’s first screening in the United States was at New York University on Oct. 30.
In October, 13 years after the MINUSTAH occupation began, the U.N. withdrew its 2,300-troop military component and changed the mission. The new Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, known as MINUJUSTH, is composed of 1,275 police officers and 350 civilians sent in to train the Haitian National Police force, establish security-sector accountability, and foster respect for the rule of law.
After voting to adopt the resolution that created MINUJUSTH, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley spoke of the need for better oversight, according to notes of the Security Council meeting.
Although MINUSTAH had been “a success” it had also been “a nightmare” for many in Haiti, she said, emphasizing that the Council must acknowledge that peacekeepers had used cookies and snacks to lure abandoned children, living in hunger, into sexual abuse.
As the post-MINUSTAH reckoning continues, the bill of particulars also includes what became of many Haitian women impregnated and abandoned by MINUSTAH soldiers, and Haiti’s devastating cholera epidemic, in which the peacekeepers are blamed for the 2010 outbreak of the water-borne disease. Epidemiologists traced its rapid spread to human waste that had been dumped from a U.N. base into a river in Haiti’s central plateau. To date, more than 9,100 people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been infected and gravely sickened.
For the makers of It Stays With You, which takes its title from the pain that many of its participants still feel, the reckoning should also include a long overdue examination of the deadly raids on Bois Neuf.
Michael Matza is a lifelong journalist, writing independently after a long career at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent trip to Haiti was in November.