Cholera backlash fuels anti-UN protests in Haiti

Anti-United Nations riots spread to several Haitian cities and towns, as protesters blaming a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers for a cholera outbreak exchanged gunfire with UN soldiers.

Disease death toll passes 1,000

A child with cholera symptoms is treated by volunteer American doctors at a hospital in Archaie, Haiti, on Monday. ((Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press))

Anti-United Nations riots spread to several Haitian cities and towns Tuesday, as protesters blaming a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers for a cholera outbreak exchanged gunfire with UN soldiers.

The protests left at least two people dead. A demonstrator was shot dead by a UN peacekeeper during an exchange of gunfire in Quartier Morin, near Haiti's second-largest city of Cap-Haitien, the UN mission said. It said it was investigating the shooting but asserted the soldier acted in self-defence.


Learn more about cholera, an intestinal infection caused by consuming food or water contaminated by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. 

Haiti Senate President Kelly Bastien told Radio Vision 2000 that a second demonstrator was shot and killed in Cap-Haitien itself. He did not know who shot him.

The 12,000-member force reported that at least six UN personnel were wounded in protests at Hinche in the central plateau, while local Radio Metropole reported that at least 12 Haitians were injured in Cap-Haitien.

The protests apparently began in Cap-Haitien early Monday and within hours had paralyzed much of the northern port city. An Associated Press television cameraman trying to reach the area was repelled by protesters throwing rocks and bottles from a barricade.

As the day went on, other protests broke out in surrounding towns and the central plateau. Local reporters said a police station was burned in Cap-Haitien and rocks thrown at peacekeeping bases. A small protest was also reported in the northwestern city of Gonaives, but UN police said it ended peacefully.

The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, dismissed the protests as politically motivated, linking them to the fast-approaching Nov. 28 presidential elections.

A woman covers her face from the smoke of burning tires set up by demonstrators in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday. ((Emilio Morenatti/Associated Perss))

"The way events unfolded suggests that these incidents were politically motivated, aimed at creating a climate of insecurity on the eve of elections. MINUSTAH calls the people to remain vigilant and not be manipulated by enemies of stability and democracy in the country," the mission said in a statement.

Officials said investigations to determine if the protesters' suspicions are correct will have to wait.

The UN's World Health Organization said in Geneva on Tuesday that efforts should focus on controlling the disease, not determining where it came from.

WHO spokesman Fadela Chaib told reporters that "at some time we will do further investigation but it's not a priority right now."

The UN's spokeswoman in Geneva, Corinne Momal-Vanian, described the suspicion that Nepalese troops were to blame for the outbreak as "misinformation."

The cholera backlash plays upon some Haitians' long-standing resentment of the 12,000-member UN military mission, which has been the dominant security force in Haiti since 2004. It is also rooted both in fear of a disease previously unknown to Haiti and internationally shared suspicion that the UN  base could have been a source of the infection.

Death toll tops 1,000

The country's Health Ministry said Tuesday that the official death toll had passed 1,000, hitting 1,034 as of Sunday. Figures are released following two days of review.

Aid workers say official figures may understate the epidemic. While the Health Ministry says more than 16,700 people have been hospitalized nationwide, Doctors Without Borders said its clinics alone have treated more than 12,000 people with cholera and cholera-like symptoms.

Cholera had never been documented in Haiti before it broke out about three weeks ago.

Suspicions quickly surrounded a Nepalese base located on the Artibonite River system, where the outbreak started. The soldiers arrived there in October following outbreaks in their home country and about a week before Haiti's epidemic was discovered.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the cholera strain now ravaging the country matched a strain specific to South Asia, but said they had not pinpointed its origin or how it arrived in Haiti.

Following an Associated Press investigation, the UN acknowledged that there were sanitation problems at the base, but said its soldiers were not responsible for the outbreak.

Transmitted by feces, the disease can be all but prevented if people have access to safe drinking water and regularly wash their hands.

President René Préval addressed the nation on Sunday to dispel myths and educate people on good sanitation and hygiene.

But sanitary conditions don't exist in much of Haiti and the disease has spread across the countryside and to nearly all the country's major population centres, including the capital, Port-au-Prince. Doctors Without Borders and other medical aid groups have expressed concern that the outbreak could eventually sicken hundreds of thousands of people.

In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, health officials banned used clothing from being sold in outdoor markets along the shared border as a precautionary measure to stop the disease's spread.

Even with those precautions, the Dominican reported its first confirmed case of cholera on Tuesday. Officials said the case involved a  Haitian citizen who had recently returned from his home country. The Dominican never had a confirmed case of cholera until this year.