2010 - %3, October

Visitors to California Prisons, Beware

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 4:32 PM EDT

I just addressed my very first letter with the words "VISITING APPLICATION ENCLOSED" on the envelope; I'm trying to meet with a source currently residing in a California prison.

If you've never filled one of these applications out, the front is pretty much what you'd expect—name, Social Security number, do you have a criminal record? But I learned some interesting stuff on the back. Like, for example, that I lose the right to leave without being searched in the event that a "cause for a search arises while the visitor is one the institution grounds." Also, giving letters to or taking letters from inmates is a misdemeanor. Ditto for gifts. But my favorite clause is the last one. "Hostages will not be recognized for bargaining purposes during attempted escapes by inmates." First of all, I wonder if, when it comes down to it, that's really true. Second: Does this mean that by signing that I understand this condition, I can't sue the state of California for not trying to save me if I become a hostage in an attempted escape?

 

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"I Feared for All Our Lives"

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

Last week, I wrote about Ansel Herz, the American journalist at the other end of a UN peacekeeper's gun in this amazing photo shot in Haiti. Today, I'd like to share his account, as he emailed it to me, of what went down at that moment. In addition to there being no good reason for the MINUSTAH soldier threatening to shoot an unarmed photographer, that wasn't the end of the peacekeepers' mistreatment of journalists or Haitian citizens at a Port-au-Prince protest last week:

One of the MINUSTAH fired a warning shot in the air and people panicked, ran away, yelling "Film! Film them!" The one in the photo pointed his loaded gun, finger on the trigger, at a lot of people, sweeping his arm in a big motion. Then the Haitians started chanting, "They're shooting on us, they're shooting on us."

I feared for all our lives in those moments, but was intensely aware of the need to document what was happening. As it unfolded my mind went straight to the man killed by troops at Father Gerard Jean-Juste's funeral in 2009. In that instance, UN troops leveled their weapons at unarmed people—and fired. MINUSTAH denied it later, even though a Haitian TV crew had grainy footage of the whole incident.

Later on last Friday, a MINUSTAH truck nervously forced its way through the crowd and a bunch of journalists were pushed into a ditch. Sebastian Walker from Al Jazeera English was one of them, ending up with a little bloody scratch on his head. At another point, one of the MINUSTAH base security guys covered my camera with his hand as I filmed him in the street. I was shoved several times by them too.

Makes you wonder how ordinary Haitians are treated, day in and day out, in places where there are no cameras.

I never saw the protesters be anything other than peaceful, until, long after MINUSTAH had upped the tension by pulling their guns out, someone chucked a single bottle at them from across the street. I'm told the UN is carrying out an internal investigation into their actions, as always.

You should know too that MINUSTAH troops have been accused of murdering a young boy in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, in August. 

Keeping Tabs on Cholera in Haiti

| Mon Oct. 25, 2010 2:18 PM EDT

"It seems that a Haitian killed a Dominican, and now the Dominicans sent cholera here to kill the population," one of my Haitian friends just texted me. That hypothesis was advanced by one of his employees, and that's the kind of superstition and misunderstanding about sanitation that could quickly lead to a lot more deaths.

Latest reports of the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti are that 259 have died and about 3,000 have been hospitalized, with at least five confirmed cases in Port-au-Prince. The good news is that the cases didn't originate in the overpopulated capital, but traveled there from the central rural regions where the outbreak originated. The bad news is that with no restrictions on travel between those areas and no potable water in many of the devastatingly squalid displacement camps where more than a million people have been living post-quake, it's a short step to an epidemic. The Haitian health ministry reports that the infection rate is slowing but has likely not yet reached its peak.

You can keep tabs on the outbreak—and counter misinformation—on Twitter. @Haitifeed aggregates news about the country, much of it now cholera-related; the Miami Herald's Jacqueline Charles and freelancers Jacob Kushner and Ansel Herz are on the ground reporting about the situation. Partners in Health, an organization that's long been providing medical care in Haiti, is posting updates on its website, which is also a great place to donate if you want to help.

UN Peacekeeper to Photographer: Shoot Me and I'll Shoot You

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 2:21 PM EDT

When I showed this amazing picture to my friend, after she registered what she was looking at, her eyes went huge while she exclaimed, "Oh my god!" with her hand over her mouth. The scene is a protest last week in Port-au-Prince. The guy on the left is a clearly unarmed and videotaping journalist from Texas named Ansel Herz, whom I happened to work with when I was in Haiti last month. The uniformed fellow pointing a gun directly at his face is a United Nations peacekeeper.

I didn't meet many (okay, any) Haitian fans of MINUSTAH, the UN stabilization force that's been in the country since 2004. I have, for the record, met some MINUSTAH who are definitely good guys and have, for example, helped a woman in labor get to the hospital, and helped stop a man who was trying to kill his wife for refusing to have sex with him. But the force has also shot civilians. It's had to have meetings about how not to sexually abuse the Haitian population. In fact, last week's protest erupted after the UN officially renewed MINUSTAH's mandate. Some of the protesters' complaints, which echo those I heard while in-country, are that MINUSTAH doesn't actually do anything to protect civilians living in filthy, violent, rape-infested displacement camps, and that the money could be better spent dealing with those issues.

I asked Ansel how he ended up on the business end of a UN gun, just in case there was any kind of conflict or missing context surrounding this photo. Not so much, he says: "Maybe they felt threatened by my camera." 

Wanna Increase Your Burma Awareness?

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

This weekend in New York, Amnesty International is teaming up with Network 355 and the Free Burma Alliance for a conference about the human-rights crisis in Burma and the US response. 

There are plenty of good reasons to bone up on your Burma awareness right now. And you don't have to take my Burma-obsessed word for it: Next month, Burma will hold its first elections in 20 years. They may or may not spark massive protests like the ones led by monks in 2007. They will definitely be bullshit. Then there's the matter of the almost entirely unreported genocide raging in the hills. And there's no better time to understand that situation now that the call for a UN inquiry into the military junta's crimes against humanity is gaining momentum.

The conference will include panelists from organizations like Human Rights Watch to the crazy bad-ass Free Burma Rangers. I'll be there, too. You can buy tickets here, and they come with a little activism built in, too: The money goes toward heart surgery for four Burmese kids who will probably die without it. 

BP Cans Cleanup Workers As More Oil Washes Up

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 3:11 PM EDT

While the National Oil Spill Commission was getting ready to drop a scathing report about the Obama administration's response to the Gulf disaster, and I was still in Haiti, I got a text from a supervisor of BP's cleanup operations in Grand Isle, Louisiana, who calls me with anonymous updates now and then. "They've cut 2500 people, said they would not do that until hurricane season was over... Which is Dec 1st...," he wrote. I checked in with him this morning, and he says BP has continued firing more cleanup workers in the two weeks since he sent the text.

But it's been a long time since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, plus all the oil was gone long ago, right? So is BP cutting even more cleanup workers because the beach looks pretty good these days? "Oh it's bad still," my source says. "Where we're at [Grande Terre], we get oil every day. They clean it up, and by the time we get back the next morning, there's tar all over the beach."

With fewer workers, is all the accumulating oil getting cleaned up?

"Well, we can only do some parts; we're only able to clean what we get with the people we have. We only have 100 people, and 80 of them are supposed to be pulled in eight days. We don't know what we're gonna do then."

Another nearby island, Cheniere, has yet to have a single cleanup worker sent to it. "It's bad," the contractor says. "It's been getting oil this whole time and it's not been touched. After [another supervisor] went and looked at it, he was like, 'I don't wanna go there.'" Good news, boys. At the rate the layoffs are going, it's lookin' like you won't have to.

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Haiti: The Price of Nothing

| Mon Oct. 11, 2010 10:24 PM EDT

"I think this trip is going to be expensive," I told my editors when I was getting ready to go to Haiti. Well, now I'm back and going through my notes—and a few receipts. Even though I'd had a hunch, I'd really had no idea.

Hotel room in Port-au-Prince: $125 a night, with no hot water, no generator (read: power only about 80 percent of the time). Gas: $5 a gallon. Thirty dollars for two weeks' worth of phone service, local calls only. Avocado on white bread at a restaurant: $10. Fried chicken with rice and beans at a grubby roadside joint: same. Ditto a lunch dish with a bottle of water from a stand I'm pretty sure gave me a parasite.

The standard car-rental rate is $150 a day. If you need someone to drive it for you—and believe me, everyone does; Port-au-Prince traffic/navigation/rubble-dodging is not for the uninitiated, and even one of the UN soldiers chilling at my hotel crashed a truck after months of driving in-country—the price can be as high as $350. A day.

Once when we were walking through a hot, dusty displacement camp, my local driver/translator/partner in crime went to go buy a Coke. When he realized he didn't have his wallet, he came back to me.

"I need a dollar."

"U.S.? Are you kidding me?" There are stores in San Francisco that sell cheaper sodas.

People blame the prices on the fact that much of Haiti's goods are imported, or that Haiti got screwed in free trade deals, or that there've been aid workers and UN soldiers and other interlopers with lots of needs and lots of dollars driving prices up for years or that Haitian poor people are so poor that they can't buy stuff anyway so prices are aimed at the upper classes. Whatever the reason, I cut a lot of corners and wrangled a lot of free rides and cheap rates, but spent close to half as much in Haiti as I did in the Gulf covering the oil spill this summer. I was in Louisiana for four months. I was in Haiti for two weeks.

"This is a good place to be poor," one of my new Haitian buddies (who happens to be rich) told me. As the prices were taxing even my American budget, I made a skeptical face. "Here, if you have nothing, you really have nothing," he explained. "You really can't afford to buy anything. But at least almost everyone else has nothing, too."