PORT-AU-PRINCE — Here in the office of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti’s capital, more than 2,000 letters of cholera victims seeking justice came pouring in to be delivered on Dec. 10 to the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission as part of a protest on Human Rights Day. It was a straightforward, nonviolent approach to remind the UN — one of the most powerful institutions in the world — of the suffering of cholera victims in Haiti.
Many of the letters started plainly, with the words, Mwen rele. In Haitian Creole: “My name is.”
Those simple statements of identity carry a lot of power in a place where death tolls are read off in depersonalizing statistics because we don’t really know the people or their stories.
The cholera epidemic in Haiti was introduced in October 2010 through the negligent waste disposal into Haiti’s main river by a UN peacekeeping base nearby. The disease has since killed more than 9,000 people and sickened 754,000. Spikes in the numbers this year have caused more worry. The UN has refused to take legal responsibility for the epidemic.
Moreover, the government of Haiti had no working health system in place at the time the peacekeeping base was set up, so when the huge earthquake struck in January 2010, the country was unable to cope with the cholera epidemic months later.
Several hundred protesters — most of them cholera victims who traveled from hard-hit rural areas hours away from Port-au-Prince — gathered in front of the UN mission to witness the delivery of the letters they wrote, telling their stories and demanding justice and reparations.
Louissant Kesner wrote to the UN not only about his personal bout with cholera but also about his country’s struggle. “I write to you,” Kesner wrote, “because I have no place to turn. This epidemic dropped me all the way down to zero.”
I speak a little Haitian Creole, but what was being said amid the crowd often came to me just a little too late. But this I understood: “Aba Minustah!” they yelled, meaning, “Down with Minustah!” — the acronym for the UN peacekeeping base.
Cholera disproportionately affects the poor. Yet even in Haiti, it can be avoided. You just need clean water and good sanitation; that is, you need money. But only people with money have access to those things in Haiti.
“I caught cholera from drinking untreated water because my family does not have enough money to buy treated water,” wrote Politès Rozye. “When I caught the sickness I lost control of my body. I could not stop vomiting or having diarrhea, which made me very dehydrated, and I wished I was dead.”
Human Rights Day commemorates the day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to the UN’s website, this year the day also coincides with the launching of a yearlong campaign called: “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always,” marking the 50th anniversary of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“On Human Rights Day, let us recommit to the guaranteeing of fundamental freedoms and protecting the human rights of all,” said Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN, on the UN website.
As part of the protest, Ban is supposed to receive copies of the letters from the cholera victims, many of who asked why the UN’s commitment to universal human rights did not extend to them.
“It is with great sadness that I am writing this letter,” wrote Gérard St. Fleur, who contracted cholera in March 2012. “It is an opportunity to remind you that human rights should be respected no matter which country one is from. . . . The MINUSTAH peacekeepers do not respect us and treat us worse than animals. For at least these reasons, I am asking for justice and reparation.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Saintume Julienne was affected with cholera in February 2012. She wrote in her letter: “I salute you in the name of Jesus in heaven. I had diarrhea, vomiting, aches all over and I was 8 months pregnant. I was in danger and my husband had to borrow a motorcycle to take me to the hospital in Mirebalais. When I got there the doctor put me on IV treatment. I spent 6 days at the hospital and later, with the grace of God, I gave birth.”
The cholera epidemic in Haiti may have been unexpected, but is not inexplicable. It’s quite clear: scientists — some even commissioned by the UN — found that the cholera bacteria introduced in Haiti’s Artibonite River in October 2010 matched a strain in Nepal. The peacekeepers at the Haitian base were Nepalese, negligently disposing their waste in the river.
Many of the cholera victims reminded the UN of this negligence in their letters.
“I am asking you respectfully to listen closely to me on what MINUSTAH soldiers sowed in Haiti,” Louis Lodes wrote. “I want to tell you that it was a lot of suffering and misery for me. The United Nations needs to provide compensation because, in fact, I have very little hope. So I am asking you to take this seriously.”
The solution to Haiti’s cholera epidemic is likewise not inexplicable. It requires good water and sanitation systems so that the water that Haitians drink and cook with doesn’t kill them, either fast or slowly.
Many of the letters refer to what happens after the cholera leaves, when people have nominally recovered, like continuing stomach cramps, headaches, joint pain and muscle weakness. Louissant Kesner never recovered his former strength and is unable to work.
Saintume Julienne recovered enough to give birth, but after the cholera left, she wrote: “I suffered from weakness and feel weaker every day. Please help me find justice and compensation.”
Building the water and sanitation systems that would prevent so much illness would be complicated. It would require an institution with great resources and access to the best thinking in engineering and development, resources that the UN happens to possess. In fact, a UN cholera elimination plan for Haiti has received only 13 percent financing.
In the meantime, the UN could help the people that have been hurt through financial compensation.
This is not just a symbolic gesture. Since cholera disproportionately affects the poor, it impoverishes them further. Many of the letters refer to the money spent and the debts victims are still paying off. They lost time from work, and some have not been able to return to their jobs because of continuing disability.
“My kids cannot go to school, because I do not have the money to pay,” wrote Louis Olice, who got cholera in 2011 and has not been able to work. “My friend, life is finished for me. Oh, MINUSTAH, you bring misfortune to my country. I am asking for justice and reparations.”
Gethiza Louis, who was working in the fields when cholera overtook her, wrote: “When I got sick, I lost everything I possessed because there was no one to look after my affairs while I was recovering. Everything I had was stolen.”
The letters, put in a box addressed to Ban Ki-moon, ended up being delivered at a UN reception area out of sight of most of the protesters. But a few people saw it.
One was a woman from Boucan-Carré in the Haitian countryside. Mwen rele Nancy, I said to her and asked her name: Aliana Joseph, she said. I told her it was a beautiful name.
Straightening up tall, with pride in her eyes, she said: “Viktim kolera.” Cholera victim.
The translation does not do the word “victim” justice because in Haiti it it does not have the negative connotation it has in the United States. For Joseph, it is also something that demands respect. She survived the terrible cholera sickness. She is strong. She is fighting for her rights.
Most of the letters from the cholera victims were gracious. They greeted UN officials and wished them well. They congratulated them on belonging to an organization that has a guiding principle of respect for human rights. They thanked them in advance for their help.
“I am counting on your cooperation and I thank you very much for the way you receive my letter,” said 16-year-old Claudeny Pierre, “and for helping me find justice and reparations because the sickness did great damage to my body.”
This is an opinion essay.
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Nancy Young is a freelance journalist who writes about Haitian health issues. She also volunteers for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston that partners with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, in Port-au-Prince. Together, they help Haitians prosecute human rights cases, train Haitian lawyers and speak out on justice issues in the country.
Young, who is based in Binghamton, N.Y., has a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in English (nonfiction writing) from the University of New Hampshire, Durham. Previously, she was a reporter and editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.