A city divided

Historically, Cite Soleil is marked by many divisions, but there is one that cuts more deeply than the rest. Route 9 slices the municipality in half on a vertical axis – to the west of that road is anba, lower Cite Soleil, the part that touches the sea. Anba is Brooklyn, Belekou, Bwa Nef, Ti Ayiti, Waf Soley, Norway – and it is considered the poorer, dirtier part of Cite Soleil, the part that holds the shacks on the sea that foreign aid workers and journalists love to take pictures of. To the east of Route 9 is anwo, upper Cite Soleil, the part that borders Route 1 and the bustling business districts of Simon Pele and Batimat. This is what holds Boston, Cite Lumiere, Projet Drouillard, places with political power and fewer shacks. The depth of the division between these two zones, anwo and anba, shifts as territories, alliances, and wars come and go.

Cite Soleil

Cite Soleil

Many people are afraid to cross that line – we have always believed that the line exists only for those entangled in guns and politics. In general, the rules about turf and territory aren’t applicable to ordinary civilians and community leaders – you can take your chances with stray bullets if a fight breaks out, but you are free to walk where you will if you are unarmed. But the rules began to change in 2013, when civilians were being targeted and killed because of where they were from – and a recent event showed us very clearly that the line is anything but a game.

The other day was the wedding of Robi’s best friend’s brother – both he, his family, and his future wife’s family live in Soley 4, which is anba. Yet the church where they wanted to be married was in 1er Cite, which is anwo. All of the groom’s brothers and friends were too afraid to cross the road into upper Cite Soleil – only the women, who are still protected by the unwritten rules, were willing to put on their Sunday best and walk to the church. It is important to note that all of these men are civilians – none of the are involved in gangs, politics, or anything in between. They should have nothing to fear. But they did, and they stayed home, just a five minute walk from the church where their own brother was getting married.

Robi had agreed to drive the couple and their families to and from the church, and he brushed aside the fear of his best friend. He said that they didn’t have anything to worry about – the line didn’t apply to him and his brothers. They were clean, unarmed, not affiliated with any political group. They were even community leaders who were well-known and respected for forming the Cite Soleil Basketball Team. But something made them stay at home, and Robi drove the few minutes to the church, shaking his head.

During the ceremony, an elderly woman fainted, and Robi volunteered to drive her home to rest. He went with another older woman who knew the house of the first. They dropped off the woman at her house in 3BB, another neighborhood of upper Cite Soleil, and were driving back to the church when a chef motioned for Robi to slow down. He did, greeted the young man – we’ll call him M – who was a minor player in the local gang. M asked if Robi had any money to spare, which he didn’t, so Robi told him that he didn’t have anything on him and was on his way back to a wedding. M knew Robi as a local community leader, so smiled, gave him a fist bump, and was about to let him go when someone else shouted, “don’t let him go!”

It was a local political heavyweight – who we’ll call W –  who Robi had never known to be associated with this specific gang before. But here he was, hanging with the baz, seeming pretty wasted on kleren, local liquor. W got up in Robi’s face and asked him who he thought he was – a guy from anba coming around their territory anwo. He said, “m ta sipoze griye’w” – I should kill you. M tried to talk him down and explain who Robi was, but W wouldn’t stop and M ended up backing down.

W kept on asking Robi who he thought he was that he could cross that line and think he wouldn’t get killed. Robi responded ‘w ka griye’m, men w paka banm limit- ‘you can kill me, but you can’t give me limits’. He kept his voice calm and explained that he had no limits in Cite Soleil – he did social work with neighborhoods all over the municipality, and that the lines that the gangs had drawn up for themselves meant nothing to him. This seemed to make W even more angry, and he responded, ‘if I went anba this very second, I would be killed – so why shouldn’t you be killed for coming anwo?’

It was then that Robi realized just how far things had gotten – and why the rules had changed. The gangsters were so miserable, so confined, that they decided unarmed civilians should share their misery. If they couldn’t be free to move – then no one should be. If they were going to be prisoners of their own territory, then everyone would be. It was why Robi’s best friend was afraid of going to his own brother’s wedding.

As the argument went on on, Robi had looked around to see if anyone besides the other gangsters would stand up to W to defend him – he saw many familiar faces, but they all looked at the ground. Then he realized that the elderly woman who had been giving him directions was standing right next to him the entire time.  This was the power of women, of mothers. They were often the only ones to stand up when the grown men were standing down.

Robi kept calm while W kept shouting. Robi didn’t back down but didn’t escalate the situation, and eventually the other members of the baz got control of W. They knew who Robi was and what he stood for and weren’t looking for that much drama. But as Robi walked towards the church, he wondered how this would have ended if he didn’t have the protection of his reputation. Later on, the real chef of that gang heard about what happened – he told a friend that no one gets killed without his orders and he wouldn’t have let them kill Robi, because ‘nou pa touye moun konsa‘ – we don’t kill people like that. But that was only partially true.

Robi didn’t want to disturb the wedding and kept the story to himself, but the elderly woman told the groom’s family what had happened and the news spread like fire in the church. At the end of the ceremony, everyone wanted a ride in the car because they didn’t feel safe walking. Even the women and the elderly – who are not considered targets – were afraid to go home on foot. Robi ended up taking three trips to and from the church with over a dozen people crammed into the car – and each time, Robi had to drive by the baz with the same men staring at him as he passed by. And each time, Robi smiled and looked relaxed, his windows down and his chair leaned back – if he didn’t look afraid, then they had no power over him. It wasn’t fun to try to scare someone who refused to be scared, and by the third trip, W had his back turned and was losing interest.

The line between anwo and anba is only as real as people let it be – there is no border, no valley, no river, no mountain to cross. It is only a few yards of pavement.  But not everyone has the respect that Robi has, so they have to respect the line. And it is more real than we thought it was.

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