Of Sports, Poverty, and Militarism in Haiti's Poorest Neighborhood
By Geoff Millard
When I went to Haiti with a delegation from Veterans For Peace to work on demilitarizing the relief effort, I never expected to get swept up by kids playing soccer and basketball, but that's exactly what happened. In the middle of Cite Soleil, the poorest slum in Haiti's capital of Port Au Prince, there is a colorful oasis called Inyon Espotif Kleb, Sakala (Union Sports Club, Sakala). Sakala focuses on peace building through sports and a gardening program.
Human beings have been playing games with balls and sticks as long as we have been interacting in communities. It is so basic to our existence that we seem to find these games in the most extreme poverty. A simple ball even without much space will spur children to chase and play. This is just the case for the children of Sakala who have found the joy and pride of playing games with balls in the midst of crippling poverty and the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the western hemisphere in at least a hundred years.
Sakala's philosophy of building peace into everything they do flies in the face of the common image of children with guns populated by the few images of Haitian children which make it into American media. We seem to think of slums in general as a dangerous place. In many ways it is an unstable place, but Sakala is providing a day camp for children with very little money and none of the millions of American dollars that go unseen by many Haitians especially in Cite Soleil. Even the foreign NGOs which now flood Port Au Prince will not venture deep into Cite Soleil.
UN trucks, military and civilian, are rarely seen here despite over 10,000 troops from MINUSTAH (the UN mission) which now stand as another occupying army in Haiti, no matter how much they call themselves a stabilizing force. MINUSTAH is made up of more than 7,000 military personnel on a peace keeping mission that every poor Haitian I talked to agreed was a massive failure. There are also just under 3,000 police who are supposed to have trained the Haitian National Police (HNP) but have not even trained half of the number set out in their mission.
One saving grace for the UN police is that they have been a little responsive to gender based violence although they have a very poor relationship with HNP. The HNP themselves have historically been unrespponsive to victims of gender based violence but this is changing with training by victims rights groups like KOFAVIV (the commission of women victims for victims). KOFAVIV even has a member up for the CNN Heroes awards this year. The mission set out by the UN for MINUSTAH seems a poor fit for a military force with even Commander Kevin Klein of the US Navy admitting as much to our delegation. He reluctantly admitted that while the military is not the best fit they at least have the troops which is not the case for a force of police.
The garden at Sakala is just as colorful and inspirational as the field of play. Old tiers are painted and filled with useful soil both because Cite Soleil was formerly a landfill and because the tiers can be used throughout Port Au Prince in urban gardening. Food shortages are a huge issue after the earthquake and urban gardens could well be part of the solution to many of these issues. Food seems to be an issue on a much smaller scale than the issue of clean water which has killed over 7,000 and left over 500,000 infected (thanks to the UN forces bringing cholera to Haiti). MINUSTAH does have water projects within its program for reconstruction, but all these reconstruction efforts add up to about 1% of its budget. The fact is that the military force is a sponge soaking up very limited resources.
So needless to say that a combat vet looking to do demilitarization work got blindsided by kids playing ball even my fandom in hockey could not keep basketball and soccer from melting my heart just this once. If you are interested in getting involved with Sakala please visit their page at Pax Christi. http://www.popsspot.com/2012/08/sports-poverty-and-militarism-in-haitis-poorest-neighborhood/
Geoff Millard is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.