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

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; A11

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.

"What about offering people food and water in exchange for turning in their weapons?" Salmo asked. The police chief agreed that could work, but Salmo said he'd need to check with his higher-ups before they started it.

After meeting with Rosemond, Salmo and his men took a tour of the shantytown's neighborhoods, which have American names like Boston and Brooklyn.

Along the narrow, trash-strewn streets, many people went about their daily lives. One young girl braided another one's hair. A woman bathed her small toddler in a plastic tub of murky water. And a man fried plantains in a pot of oil next to a woman on a blanket selling dented cans of peas and sardines.

As Salmo and his men passed, kids yelled, "Hey, you! Hey, you!" A few men said thank you and others joked -- Please, take over Haiti.

For some soldiers, being in Haiti is merely a pit stop to being deployed to war.

"I'd rather be in Iraq or Afghanistan," said 1st Sgt. Santos Cavazos, who lost his left eye in a battle in Iraq. "There you know there's a bad guy, and our job is to look for him."

He added: "Here, we're like a football team being put in front of a Ping-Pong table. It's a learning curve."

When Salmo's men couldn't get their Humvee and trucks down a road blocked by a fallen electrical pole, they took out an ax and chopped down the pole, drawing stares from the locals.

"They've never seen someone just stop and do something," Guiteau Nestant, a Haitian police sergeant, said as he walked with Salmo. "They believe that if an American is in a place to help, everybody survives."

After looking at a destroyed school, Salmo headed back to his base camp and gathered reports from his men on other food and water deliveries they'd made that day.

The delivery at the Catholic church didn't go as smoothly as he'd hoped. The friars had a complicated system of giving out tickets to those who should get food, but some people became frustrated when they didn't get the tickets and weren't offered food.

"We were the goon squad when we were pushing people away and we still had food," said Sgt. Andy Anspach.

Go back and finish the job, Salmo told him.

"Yes sir," the sergeant replied.

Remember, he told his men, "they had a crisis of biblical proportions. We're going to stay on as long as people want us to stay."

"We're going to try to fix it," he said. "We may not, but we're going to try."

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