PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI: UN peacekeepers in Haiti have shot dead at least one person in clashes sparked by claims that Nepalese soldiers brought the cholera epidemic that has swept the country, killing 1,000 people.
Crowds in two northern towns threw stones, set up burning barricades and blocked roads to protest against the presence of the foreign troops and the government’s response to the crisis, which has unsettled the authorities and the UN in the runup to elections on 28 November.
One man was shot by a UN peacekeeper during an exchange of gunfire in Quartier Morin, near the country’s second city, Cap-Haitien.
The UN peacekeeping force, known as Minustah, said the soldier had acted in self-defence, but an investigation had been launched.Cap-Haitien, the country’s second city, was this morning cut off from the rest of Haiti after a day of rioting shut its roads and airport, and left more than a dozen people wounded. Clashes in the town of Hinche injured seven Nepalese peacekeepers, according to local radio.
Minustah officials said the protests were politically motivated, and linked them to the election later this month.
The mission said, in a statement: “The way events unfolded suggests these incidents were politically motivated, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of elections. Minustah calls on the people to remain vigilant and not be manipulated by enemies of stability and democracy in the country.” The flare-ups followed mounting anger and fear over a disease many blame on effluent from a base used by Nepalese troops in the Artibonite valley, where the outbreak began three weeks ago.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that the strain, which has infected more than 15,000 people and reached all 10 departments, resembled one from south Asia. Haiti’s first epidemic in living memory began in the valley a week after the Nepalese arrived.
UN officials have admitted problems with the base’s sanitation but denied its soldiers brought the disease, which is spread by contaminated faeces. No official investigation into the epidemic’s origin has been launched despite appeals from Haitian leaders and foreign epidemiologists.
“In Haiti, most of the population believes it came from the Nepalese and that the UN will do its best to hide it,” said Mr Prospery Raymond, country director of the UK-based charity Christian Aid. “If it is confirmed to be from them, this will be damaging for the UN and their peacekeeping all over the world.” The outbreak has flooded clinics and hospitals with vomiting, diarrhoea-stricken patients. Experts say more than 200,000 people could become infected in coming months.
With no previous knowledge of cholera, many Haitians are unsure how to avoid contagion. Experts say washing hands with soap, especially after going to the toilet, is the best prevention. Treatment – usually an intravenous drip and rehydration – is relatively simple and fast, and saves the vast majority of those infected.
Even so, emergency teams are worried.
“If it keeps accelerating, we will not be able to keep up,” said Mr François Servranckx, the spokesperson for Médecins sans Frontières, a non-governmental organisation that has treated 10,000 patients at improvised tent clinics.
Donors credit Minustah with keeping Haiti relatively stable in recent years despite food price riots, hurricanes and January’s earthquake. Many Haitians, however, brand the blue helmets an expensive and useless occupation force.
Haitians are also critical of their government for letting the disease spread from the Artibonite valley to cities where millions live in slums, rubble and tents. “Now it’s here and they are wringing their hands. Not good enough!” said Alfred Roberts, a father of two in the capital Port-au-Prince.
The outbreak has put a question mark over whether presidential and legislative elections, already troubled by logistical and political problems, will go ahead on schedule later this month.