November 17, 2010
On Monday, UN peacekeepers in Haiti shot dead at least one person – perhaps two – in riots ignited by claims that Nepalese soldiers brought the cholera epidemic that has swamped the beleaguered country. Although the Nepalis are being singled out, the now desperate population – over 1000 people have died in the last three weeks – blames the UN mission and its own inept government as the overriding causes.
Before going on, it should be stressed that, to date, no scientific evidence has been produced to prove that the Nepali troops are to blame.
Regardless, 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 UN and the local authorities: Elections are scheduled for November 28.
What is the UN mission in Haiti and where does Nepal fit in?
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, consists of 11,848 military and police personnel from 57 countries.
Its original mandate – to restore and secure stability – was extended after January's earthquake to support reconstruction and recovery.
The number of Nepali troops in Haiti exceeds 1000.
Worldwide, according to a UN report on Ranking of Military and Police Contribution to UN Operations, Nepal ranks 6th, with 4,735 peacekeepers dispersed across four continents. (Bangladesh ranks 1st place, with Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Egypt coming in 2nd through 5th place respectively.)
For more than two decades, Nepal peacekeepers have burnished their reputation as dependable, consistent and frontline contributors to the UN peacekeeping missions – including the most perilous ones such as Sudan.
Why Nepal became a scapegoat in Haiti
The U.N. mission in Haiti investigated latrines and sanitation at a base used by Nepalese forces along the Meille River in the Artibonite Valley, in the vicinity where the outbreak began in late October. Reporters from the Associated Press who visited the Nepalese base in late October reported seeing "foul smelling waste" trickling toward the river. Within hours, Nepal was fingered as the source country for the cholera strain that was identified as South Asian.
However, Vincenzo Pugliese, spokesman for the U.N. mission, announced that the Nepalese battalion reported no cholera among its soldiers, and that tests of water inside and around the camp showed no cholera. The Haitian health ministry also ran tests and came to the same conclusion.
"There is no objective direct link you can make between the [Nepali] soldiers and the outbreak," Pugliese said.
Since then, the scientific community has come forward stressing that correctly identifying the source would be unlikely, if not impossible.
"I listen to the radio every day, and there is a lot of discussion about the source of the outbreak," said U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten. "It is my understanding the science is not definitive."
Yesterday, the UN mission issued a statement regarding the most recent riots: "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 outbreak has put a question mark over whether presidential and legislative elections, already troubled by logistical and political problems, will go ahead on schedule at the end of this month.
Haitian presidential candidate Garaudy Laguerre – identified as one of the political agitators – said, "Too often, Haitians die without reasons and without consequences. This time, there will be consequences." If elected, Laguerre vowed an investigation to determine the source of the outbreak – something most experts now agree would be a fruitless endeavor.
But as Nepalis know all too well from their own recent experiments with elections and floundering politicians – creating scapegoats for a country’s woes is a way to capture headlines and pocket votes.
Who is the real villain of the cholera epidemic in Haiti?
Regardless of where this disease came from, the reason that it is spreading like wildfire is because of the horrible conditions in which millions of Haitians live. The UN and international organizations have been working hard to usher in clean water and sanitation on the earthquake-ravaged island. What has slowed down the process is multifold: International donation pledges that have not yet materialized, weak and corrupt government, grinding poverty, overcrowded and deplorable living conditions and natives unschooled in hygiene – all contribute to the desperate state Haiti now finds itself.
A Closer Look at the Strain of Cholera plaguing Haiti
The strain in Haiti has been identified as an extremely contagious and virulent one. It can kill in a few hours - unless the victim gets immediate help. Treatment – usually an intravenous drip and rehydration – is relatively simple and fast, and saves the vast majority of those infected.
The problem is that Haiti has well over a million people still in camps built after the earthquake, with a disease that spreads by hand, mouth, touch and water. It can lie dormant for five days.
Experts at the Pan American Health Organization forecast 200,000 Haitians will show signs of the disease, while it is possible a million will be infected, but remain asymptomatic carriers still capable of spreading the potentially deadly bacteria.
To make matters worse, 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. But in the squalid slums of Port au Prince and the river towns where the cholera outbreak began three weeks ago, many Haitians held up their hands and shook their heads at reporters, saying they had no soap.
A cake of yellow Haitian soap costs about 50 cents – beyond the purchasing power of many natives. More than half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
And now, with local politicians vying for votes in the upcoming elections and using the UN peacekeepers as convenient scapegoats, the battle to improve conditions in Haiti has become all the more difficult.
Monday’s violent rioting in Cap-Haitien, for instance, the country’s second city, resulted in it being cut off from the rest of the country. The roads and the airport were shut down.
As Dr. Jim Wilson, from the Haiti Epidemic Advisory System, pointed out to Al Jazeera, the protests would make controlling the epidemic even more difficult: "What it means, ultimately, is more lives will be lost to the disease if we cannot get in there to provide medical support."
In the meantime, Nepalis in Nepal should remain proud of their well-trained and very professional representatives working so hard in Haiti….regardless of the assumptions of Haitian politicians and international journalists who are more eager to get a headline than to attain scientific verification.