Even though Cite Soleil is the most densely-populated place in Haiti, there are times when it feels abandoned. It feels abandoned because almost everyone with something resembling a career has left. Cite Soleil has raised engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, entrepreneurs, police – and none of them stay. And we’ve explored some of the reasons why before: external stigma, rejection from neighbors, and the very rational fear of stray bullets.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the fewer professionals in the neighborhoods, the more the few that are left want to leave. So no one who makes decisions about Cite Soleil lives in Cite Soleil – they don’t know what happens at night when the electricity is cut, they don’t have mothers who can’t sleep because of gunshots, they don’t have any real incentive to see things get better. The mayors and representatives of Cite Soleil don’t live there – most of them wouldn’t be caught in Cite Soleil after the sun goes down.
This is most evident when it comes to police: Cite Soleil already has a rocky relationship with its police. Cite Soleil was practically abandoned by the police from 2004-2006 when the chimeres ruled the neighborhoods. And when the police did return – with the backing of UN soldiers – their relationships with the communities were marred by mutual distrust and fear. After a child was shot not far from the local police station in 2007, Robi and a group of friends tried to shut the gate of the police station, telling them that if they couldn’t do their jobs, then they should just leave and let Soleyans police themselves (as they had been doing for the years the police weren’t there). In 2011, an innocent friend of ours was arrested illegally by the Cite Soleil police, and when we went to the station to find out what happened, we were told we had to speak with the officer that arrested him. The officer calmly told us that he knew that our friend was innocent, but that to him, all Soleyans were dogs. He smiled as he told us that if he woke up tomorrow and every man, woman, and child in Cite Soleil was dead, he would be a happy man. Then he let our friend out of his holding cell.
So it’s an understatement to say that most Soleyans don’t trust the police – and this is a main driver behind the persistent power of local armed groups. When there is a conflict, a theft in the neighborhood, no one goes to the police – they go to the local chef, and he judges and gives out punishments. This reinforces their power, and is the reason that many neighborhoods not only tolerate, but actually protect the armed young men in the neighborhood. They serve to fill in many of the gaps left by the state.
There is a new initiative to try to address this called ‘Community Policing’, but in Cite Soleil, the term has become a joke – a few police showing up once and a while on bicycles. The last time we mentioned the word ‘community policing’ to someone in the Cite, they laughed.
There are currently no police officers in Cite Soleil who are from Cite Soleil – although that could soon change. A young man from Soley 17 named Octa Patrick was a member of the 25th class to graduate from the Police Academy this past week. He wasn’t the only person from Cite Soleil to be in his graduating class – but he was the only one to admit he was from Cite Soleil. Octa recognized at least 5 other young men and women from the neighborhoods in his class, but they all gave the addresses of friends or relatives in Delmas, Petionville, or Carrefour, afraid to say where they came from. Octa kept quiet – he wasn’t going to ‘out’ them as being Soleyan.
But Octa was different, and he let everyone know where he was from – and it wasn’t easy. He was teased and mocked – told that the police were no place for a kid from Cite Soleil. During weekend breaks when there were protests in poor neighborhoods, his instructors told him not to go home. Octa wondered why – this is why he joined the police, to understand why his neighborhood was suffering from violence, and to fix it. He didn’t think he had to hide from it. So he defied his instructor’s orders and went home in secret.
In the last weeks of class, a form was circulated to ask the soon-to-be-officers where they wanted to work when they graduated – Octa was the only person he knew who put down ‘Cite Soleil’ as his first choice.
Octa not only didn’t hide who he was to the police – he didn’t hide who he was in Cite Soleil. This was even more dangerous, because if anyone in the neighborhood perceived him as a threat, it wouldn’t cost much to have him killed. But Octa still feels he has nothing to hide, and has been walking around his neighborhood in his uniform, talking to neighbors about why he decided to join the police. The other young recruits from Cite Soleil are planning to get out of the neighborhoods as soon they can – Octa says he won’t leave unless he’s pushed out.
Robi learned about Octa last week and was intrigued, because he also once had a vision of joining the police and making his neighborhood safe. On the day of graduation, Robi took Octa out to lunch and talked with him for hours about his dreams, his plans, and his strategy. They were real with each other – even if Octa could overcome the serious issues and conflicts within the police, the kind of change Cite Soleil needed went far beyond a single police officer. But Octa wanted to do his part – even if it meant paying a heavy price.
Robi is afraid that Octa will fail, or die. The odds that he will succeed are slim. But then again, the odds that anyone will make any changes in Cite Soleil are slim. So all we can do now is applaud Octa’s courage, and his refusal to be ashamed of who he is – a young police officer from Cite Soleil. It’s the first step down a very long road.