U.S. soldiers play vital role in beleaguered Haitian shantytown

Citizens of Cite Soleil, a Haitian slum, are concerned that violence may increase in the aftermath of the earthquake. Thousands of criminals escaped when a prison was damaged during the earthquake and many residents believe they will re-engage in criminal activity.
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The Haitian men stood outside the razor wire, lined up on both sides of the dirt road, waiting. When Army Capt. Andrew Salmo stepped out from the makeshift military quarters in a former school, he and about 20 of his men were swarmed by the Haitians.

With iPhones, they snapped pictures of the soldiers, asked for food, water and jobs, trying to show the troops their government ID cards and get them to take down their names and skills. It took the soldiers almost 20 minutes to go about half a block to a church where they planned to take food and water.

"People are friendly," Salmo, 28, said. "They don't want just handouts. They want jobs. I have to tell them 'No, we're the Army. We're not Ford Motor Company.' "

Since arriving in Haiti last week, the 140 infantrymen have delivered more than 15,000 meals and 30,000 bottles of water. Salmo and his men of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne -- about 40 percent of whom have served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are trying to focus on getting help to Cite Soleil, a shantytown just outside the capital where about 300,000 people live under tin roofs and in tents made with bedsheets.

It is considered one of the poorest places in Haiti -- and in the Western Hemisphere. The town, some say, didn't have as much damage from the earthquake as other places because it was too poor to fall, having few two-story buildings. Still, 3,000 people died there and 15,000 were injured.

But Cite Soleil's police chief worries that criminals who escaped from a nearby prison damaged by the quake will again take up in Cite Soleil.

For years, the area was dominated by gangs notorious for kidnappings and killings. But in 2004, after U.N. security forces arrived, the town's violence ebbed and many of the gang leaders were eventually thrown in jail.

Days after the earthquake, some gang leaders who had escaped from the prison showed up at the police station and asked for a weapons cache, Haitian police said. And a few gang members -- one of whom was named "Blade," after the Wesley Snipes movie about a vampire -- were lynched by a mob after they tried to reorganize, the police said.

Aristide Rosemond, the city's police chief, lost his parents, his wife and daughter in the earthquake but has been going to work every day to try to maintain control of his force. He has only three or four police officers per shift on the streets. Usually he'd have 15.

For Salmo, who served 12 months in Iraq in 2005, establishing a relationship with local leaders is crucial to helping the Haitians help themselves in the long term -- a strategy he tried in Iraq.

"All we're doing now is passing out fish," he said. "If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life." He's hired locals who speak English to help him figure out whom to trust, paying them mostly in MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat.

Rosemond asked Salmo whether the U.S. military could keep a presence in the town by passing out food and water, as it had earlier in the week, hoping that criminals who see Americans in uniform would be deterred from picking up guns he believes they've stashed away.

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