I’d recently had some quite intense safety and security training for MapAction. One of the items we had talked about was that if you are inside a building and you hear shots, your natural reaction is to go to the nearest window and see what all the commotion is. The right reaction is to do the exact opposite and find the solidest piece of furniture you can hide behind.
In the Kinam, as the rest of the hotel headed out to the gate, I was glad to override the natural functions and I crouched down behind a nice firm stone pillar. There were only a few shots but the reaction of the crowd outside I could guess at by the screams and shouts- and the fact the noise suddenly became dispersed and less uniform – people were scattering as fast as possible away from the gun or guns.
The situation dissolved nearly as fast as it had erupted and I went back to the laptop to continue working. On chatting to a waiter ( after a couple of weeks my French was fluent enough to make a conversation of this), I found out the horrific story behind the commotion.
Nice view – but you often heard gunfire
Earlier that day a police car had smashed into a market stall. They ran over and killed a woman then drove off without even stopping, The market stall holders had rallied together and with a few hangers on, hastily organised a protest march to gather at Pertionville’s police station which was on the southern side of the town square. The gun shots had come from the police who had tolerated a few moments of protest but did not want the marchers to reach the steps of their workplace.
These kinds of stories were not necessarily daily occurrences in Haiti, but they were far from infrequent. Several times when I had been at the Ibo Lele, I would hear a bang, maybe a vehicle backfire but could be gunfire. We’d see people fighting on the street – maybe over a bang on a car, maybe kids falling out over some trivial issue, the flames in their eyes boring into their opponent’s skulls as they eyed each other up and the crowd would egg them on. There would be market mamas arguing over a sale, a man, or just a bad day. This town had an edge that continued to bubble up to the surface and cause more harm.
The third and completely contrasting event happened much later in the trip. We were getting close to the workshop and Jean Luc was once more out making sure everything was OK at the hotel where it was to be held. Chris was getting some printing done at a place in Petionville – for some reason all workshops in the Caribbean need a banner; whether there are three people or thirty thousand. They need to show all the logos of who is funding, who the clients are and a complicated title (with a set of roman numerals in them if they can possibly squeeze it in). Titles of workshops seem to get sillier and sillier, although the most complicated one was for a meeting I attended when living in BVI. It was on the nearby island of St John and called “Virgin Islands Reef Fish Spawning Aggregation and Marine Protected Area Workshop for Fishermen”. The name was so long that they had to reduce the font on the t shirt to fit it all on one side.
So Chris was out measuring up the size of the plastic sheet to be used and getting the PDF of the banner together. I love the efficient use of time in these contracts.
I was putting the finishing touches to the maps for the presentation, and was down in my usual haunt of the poolside tables. I was close to the main wall of the bar and to my right there were more tables leading to the small garden at the front of the hotel. At the end of the garden was a tall thick tall stone wall that shielded the hotel from the main road south out of Petionville and across from that the town square. The square still had a lot of mature trees, but the ground around was hard from the heavy footfall it received, and littered with shoe shiners, tobacco stalls and newsstands, cell phone card vendors, people just hanging around and, well , litter.
Once in the Kinam Hotel you usually forgot the outside world existed
The noise from all this activity was impossible to ignore but somewhat tempered by the heaviness of the wall. On this afternoon, as I worked away at my screen, even I could perceive that the noise was more organised. I could hear chanting and singing approaching the hotel. I tried to continue on, but the racket got louder and many of the hotel guests and staff had broken from their current occupations and were heading to the front entrance. The entrance to the hotel itself was a narrow gate barely two people wide so it did not take long for it to fill up and it was difficult for people to see. If I leaned back I could just about see around the corner to where a small crowd of onlookers had now built up just inside the hotel grounds.
The singing and chanting were now loud and there was some competing shouting from a different direction. I decided I could come away from my laptop for a moment and take a look. I was glad I had delayed as it was just while I was wandering up to the onlookers I heard shots fired.