A Dangerous Place

Okay. I admit it. Tarantulas scare the hell out of me. For awhile a few years ago I was thinking of buying one to keep in an aquarium in my office at school. At the time, I was preparing to teach a class in Observational Biology, and I wanted to make animal motion a focus. I imagined students profitably enjoying tracing the movements of a big, hairy spider. I never intended, however, for the tarantula and me to be on the same side of the aquarium. It would stay on the inside. I would stay on the outside.

Tuesday night in Matenwa, however, Anita told me to keep an eye out for the critters. Since the spring rains have started, they show up often enough. By early Wednesday evening, I had seen three of them, inside the house I was staying in. In other words, we were on the same side of the house. One of them was sitting comfortably on one of the beds. Though it had chosen the one that I was not using, I immediately deduced with certainty that it would surely choose to spend some time on the other one that night. I didn’t sleep well.

I should be more serious about the dangers in Haiti, though, so I’ll share another anecdote.

Thursday, Edouard and I were stopped at a blockade by heavily armed police. They were dressed in the all-black uniforms that are worn by what is called SIMO, the rough equivalent of an American SWAT team. They were not, in other words, traffic cops. Being in close proximity to automatic rifles and large handguns would give me the creeps under the best of circumstances – if there are good circumstances to see them in. But I recently read a report asserting that Haitian police have been entering certain parts of Pòtoprens and carrying out summary executions – I can neither confirm nor contradict the assertion – so running into a crowd of large uniformed men carrying big weapons made me nervous.

It turned out to be a very professionally-run operation. They were checking everyone’s ID, looking over the drivers’ various paperwork, and searching for weapons. They were forceful, but reasonably polite. They looked through my bag, but showed no interest in either the laptop or the cash it contained.

Edouard’s papers were not in order, not even close, and they held us for awhile. He himself knew perfectly well that they were in the right. They listened to his explanation, which was reasonable. It was mainly based on how hard it is to get official paperwork organized in Haiti. It was not the sort of explanation they were bound to accept, but though they made us wait awhile, and though they told him in no uncertain terms that his explanation was unacceptable, eventually they let him – and, so, us – go. The gave him nothing but a firm scolding. Frankly, they impressed me.

This is a strange time to be in Haiti. The news I read of Haiti on the internet is, without exception, bad. This would not be, in itself, so unusual. The world press, when it’s willing to show any interest in Haiti at all, generally seems quite fixated on misery.

But these days it’s different. The news is not about poverty and suffering. It’s about violence and crime. Some news sources will report that supporters of former president Aristide are fomenting violence to interfere with elections. Others will insist that Haiti’s in-their-view-illegal government, virtually imposed by the United States since the 2004 coup d’état, is carrying out an campaign of violence and terror against those same supporters of Aristide. I am not a journalist and I have a poor understanding of Haitian politics, so I won’t presume to say what the truth is. I suspect that there’s some truth in what both sides our saying, but that there’s plenty of old-fashioned crime-for-profit as well. Even a recent State Department comment admitted that things here are “more complicated” than its usual anti-Aristide proclamations would have one believe. And they admit this even though the American government simply loathes Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

What is clear is that there is, both here and in whatever corners there are abroad that care about Haiti, a rapidly escalating perception that the county is dominated by violence and crime. Not only are Americans I know — even ones who have years of experience in Haiti – choosing to postpone or cancel trips here, but Haitians I know in the countryside are thinking seriously of canceling trips to Pòtoprens.

And it’s not as though they have no reason to feel concerned. Kidnapping-for-profit rings seem to be increasingly active and effective. Heavy gunfire is a part of daily life in certain corners of Pòtoprens. The combination of Haitian police and UN peacekeepers who are nominally responsible for security here seem hard-pressed to help. If that’s what they are honestly trying to do. There are about seven thousand peacekeepers and about five thousand police, and Haiti is a nation of eight million people. Even if you only consider the population of Pòtoprens, the number is something like two million. The numerical odds seem very much against law and order.

So one might easily wonder why I choose to remain here at a moment like this, and my answer might come as a surprise. The truth is that I do not feel as though I am in danger. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I have not yet felt that I have something here to fear. I devoutly avoid those parts of Pòtoprens where the violence is occurring, just as I am careful about where I would go in Chicago, Waukegan, or New York. I likewise avoid the trappings of wealth that both draw kidnappers’ attention and make their work easy to do. I don’t travel in a fancy SUV and I don’t make regular trips to a fancy office. I use public transportation or Edouard’s motorcycle to get in and out of, and to get around in, Pòtoprens. I’ve yet to read stories of kidnappers pulling victims off the back of random pick-up trucks, and Edouard works with an attentiveness and a level of skill that avoids trouble. There has yet to be any sign of political or criminal violence in Darbonne or Matenwa, much less in Ka Glo, and these are the places I live. I might very well leave if I felt concerned for my own safety, but so far I see no reason to be afraid.

But fear is a funny thing. It has as much or more to do with impressions and semblances than with facts. Our imagination plays an important role as well. For example, when I think carefully about my fear of tarantulas I must admit that it has little or nothing to do with the tarantula’s painful and, perhaps, dangerous bite. What I fear is the feeling that one might crawl on me or touch me as I try to sleep at night. My fear is, in other words, of something that I have no reason to be concerned about. And my fear is perfectly real nonetheless.

Now the very last thing that I would want to suggest is that those who fear Haiti right now are as irrational as I am about tarantulas. There is violence here right now. There are dangers. Just as there are, by the way, in lots of places. But assessing danger is complicated, and different people can have very different reactions to similar things. I think of the way I imagine that my young American friend Alexa Dolinko would walk up to tarantulas ready to be fascinated by the lovely creatures that they are.

And other people who live and work here, or who come here to visit, may see something that looks very different from what I see. I recently told my parents to cancel a planned visited because I feel as though they would likely draw the kind of attention that I do not think I draw. Those here who work more regular schedules than I do, those who depend on attractive private transportation, and those whose life or work takes them to offices or homes in lower Delma or downtown Pòtoprens surely have something very real to fear.

But none of this is true of me. In fact, as the school year draws to a close, and my new laptop battery makes it easier for me to work without electric power, I am likely to circulate less and less. My life should only get even safer than it has been.

So for now I see no reason to leave, no reason to be too concerned. Friends and family might find too little comfort in my sense of safety, especially those who are used to watching the way their absentminded philosophy professor crosses the street. But I get a lot of advice from those around me here, and I listen to it. Other than that, I don’t know what I can reasonably do.