Page 7, 19th January 2007

19th January 2007
Page 7
Page 7, 19th January 2007 — `You have to engage with the gangsters'

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`You have to engage with the gangsters'

Billy Briggs meets a priest who left a cosy life in America to serve in Haiti's slums bullet holes Hagan points to seven bullet holes in the walls and roof of the classroom and slowly shakes his head. "Why would they shoot at a school full of children?"the American priest asks wearily.

We are standing in St Francois de Salles School in a slum called Cite Soleil in Port au Prince, the capital city of Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and a sorry place where one of the world's forgotten crises continues to simmer. This is a country where life expectancy is only 49 years and where 80 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty.

In Cite Soleil up to 500,000 people are packed into an area barely two square miles in total and in the tropical heat they swelter in tiny ramshackle huts made of rusty, corrugated iron sheets with no electricity. no running water and no sanitation. Dubbed the "Calcutta of the Caribbean" and only an hour and a half by plane from the millionaire marinas of Miami, Cite Soleil is a medieval sore that humanity should be ashamed of.

After working here for more than a decade Fr Tom knows the misery of the place only too well. "The situation is dire and the violence is getting worse," the priest says, taking off a green baseball cap with "Ireland" embroidered on the back, a nod to his Irish roots and grandparents who hailed from Galway.

As we tour the school with Fr Tom children tell us that the previous week United Nations soldiers fired at their building during lessons. Raoul Moroney, an 11-year-old pupil, was in class that day and says everyone was petrified and threw themselves to the ground before crawling downstairs to safety.

"The white people began shooting. Everyone was crying," he says. Fr Tom explains that the shooting lasted about an hour and came from a UN post about 100 metres away manned by Brazilian troops. He says he cannot understand why soldiers would target a school. No firing was coming from inside the building.

For most outsiders Cite Soleil is a no-go area where armed gangs rule the streets. The UN, which says the area is a base for people carrying out kidnappings, extortion and murder, only enters with soldiers protected in armoured personnel carriers, and the situation is so tense that all international aid organisations have pulled out except for Doctors Without Borders, a Scottish charity called Mary's Meals and Hands Together, Fr Tom's organisation.

Cite Soleil, which translates tonically as City of Sun. is probably one of the most dangerous pockets of land in the world, but this earnest, unassuming priest has come here almost daily and without armed protection since 1996. Over the years a dozen of Fr Tom's members of staff have been murdered and eight students in his schools have also died violently, including one who was hacked to death with a machete.

"It has been very difficult at times; it still is, and I would not say that Haiti is one of my favourite places. But we have to continue our work here as conditions are desperate for the population," he says.

A native of Philadelphia who spent seven years as Princeton University's chaplain. Fr Tom first came to Haiti in 1986 to start rural projects with college students. This gradually morphed into Hands Together, a Catholic aid organisation, and in 1996 Fr Tom moved to Haiti permanently.

"It was after my mother died that I made the decision to come here," he explains. Today, there are seven primary schools run by Hands Together, as well as health clinics and food stations for the elderly.

A walkabout with the priest attracts much attention and everywhere we go children and adults wave and shout "Bonjour!" as we pass. He seems embarrassed by the adulation he receives but it is clear that the population here adore and respect this man. And that goes for the 30 or so armed gang leaders who rule the different sections of this slum. Fr Tom takes us to meet Zorro, the leader of an area called Boston.

Dressed in blue jeans and a shortsleeved, white shirt, the 28-year-old father of two young children is not the archetypal hoodlum we expected to meet. We sit and chat about the problems of his neighbourhood.

"Hands Together has been the only organisation to come and give us rice and we have built 18 homes here with Fr Tom's help," Zorro tells me. He urges us to see the conditions his people live in, so we go for a tour of the locality. The people here live in a filthy, toxic rubbish dump teeming with disease and vermin and in the half-light of dusk the scene is near apocalyptic. Malnourished children walk barefoot through lakes of stagnant green water and open sewers and there are huge black pigs everywhere snorting and grunting with their snouts in the muck.

As we walk, followed by groups of noisy, excited children, I ask Fr Tom about his relationship with the gangs and what his response is to critics who say he treats dangerous criminals as community leaders.

"These are young men drawn into violence... but they care deeply about their community and I kinda like some of them," he replies. "The gangs are the law here and you have to engage with them. Look at this place, took at what they endure. I have to have relationships with them in order to help the people."

So much so that Fr Tom recently succeeded in obtaining an unprecedented proclamation of nonviolence from a number of the gang leaders in the hope it might end the violence.

"But the problem is the UN and the government are not interested in speaking with these people," he explains. "I'm sure if they sat down some kind of peace deal could be thrashed out."

The UN force has been deployed in Haiti since 2004, following the overthrow of the nation's charismatic leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The force, which had two soldiers shot dead recently, claims the gangs. who mostly supported Aristide, cause the violence. But the local community accuses the UN of targeting unarmed civilians.

Fr Tom seems to be caught in the middle, walking a political minefield. He admits he is less than popular with people such as the American ambassador in Haiti or the local bishop. But, if truth be told, he doesn't seem to care much for either protocol or politics despite the trouble it can bring.

"I suppose I was a bit of a rebel in the past and I was thrown out of eight parishes in Philadelphia because of my stance on certain issues," he says.

During one. dispute with the authorities Fr Tom even resorted to sleeping rough in the centre of town because of his opposition to the closure of a shelter for the homeless. "I worked with the homeless for a long time and met some good, decent people. Closing the centre was not the right thing to do so I fought against it and, after a bit of a battle, I eventually won. It didn't make me very popular with some people but it meant that people were not forced back on to the streets," he says.

Fr Tom was certainly popular as chaplain at Princeton University, where he was given an honorary degree, but his life now is far removed from leafy academic surroundings.

"People are much the same wherever you go. They have good hearts and humour and want to learn so perhaps it's not really that different from the Ivy League in some respects... aside from living conditions obviously."

Hands Together has grown over the years and now collaborates with many other organisations as well as hundreds of diocesan mission offices in the United States which support his work through prayer and financial contributions.

Fr Tom has also been working recently with Mary's Meals, a Scottish charity that operates worldwide providing food and education to children. The charity has undertaken to feed some of the primary school children.

"I want to show you something," Fr Tom says and he takes us to zone Bellecourt. Gunfire starts up as we squeeze past dilapidated tin huts followed by hungry children with copper-tinged hair, a sign of malnutrition.

Men, women and children sit about in the heat with nothing to do, swatting flies away or listening to portable radios.

Fr Tom takes a right into a small passage and walks up a flight of stairs. "There," he points. On the roof of a house a women is making mud pies, dozens of them laid out drying in the sun. Each one is grey and about the size of a small plate. They look like oversized oatcakes. Made from dust collected front; the countryside mixed with water, and sometimes herbs and butter, these are what pass for sustenance in Cite Soleil.

"This is what the poor eat in Cite Soleil." he says. "This is why we are here."


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