On-Site Reports from Our Peacekeepers

My Experience as a Liaison Officer in Haiti

International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Haiti
Hidehiro Hamahata, Liaison Officer

In the beginning of June 2011, I was seconded from the Ministry of Defense to the Secretariat of the International Peace Cooperation Headquarters ( PKO Secretariat) in the Cabinet Office. Since then, I've been working as a Liaison Officer in the International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Haiti. At Japan's Liaison and Coordination Office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, the head of the office and four Japanese staff are working to coordinate activities and liaise with the Japanese Self-Defense Force ( SDF ) and relevant organizations.

Two months have passed since my deployment in Haiti, leaving me another month to stay. While I might be too naive to declare myself knowledgeable about Haiti, let me describe some of my daily thoughts looking back my life in Haiti.

At the front gate of the SDF camp in Haiti(img)

At the front gate of the SDF camp in Haiti

1. First Impressions of Haiti

The Great East Japan Earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011. Since then, Japan has been suffering from the double whammy of the catastrophe caused by the earthquake and tsunami, together with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, with no end in sight. Following post-earthquake assignments for three months, I was able to come to Haiti for the International Peace Cooperation Assignment, a post I had long hoped to obtain.

My first impression of Haiti was quite visceral: it was hot, and it was pretty dirty. I arrived at the Port-au-Prince International Airport via New York around noon on June 8. There were an enormous number of internally displaced persons' ( IDP s') tents that first caught my eye through the window when my plane was landing at the airport (it is said that there are some 1,000 IDP camps throughout the country, where 600,000 Haitians whose houses were destroyed by the 2010 earthquake are accommodated). I also remember well that there were no tall buildings around the airport.

An IDP camp(img)

An IDP camp

On arrival, a fierce heat hit me. It wasn't as humid as Japanese summer, but even a short walk made us sweat buckets in no time because of the scorching sun. And, for some reason, trash was scattered everywhere in Haiti: empty lunch boxes, plastic bottles, paper, bags, cans, and other plastic junk. A huge amount of garbage was somehow all thrown away on the street. Since they stank and looked disgusting, I concluded that Haiti was hot and dirty.

After spending two months here in Haiti, however, neither the heat nor the poor sanitary conditions disturb me anymore. As far as hygiene is concerned, I make it a point of paying careful attention to what I eat every day: drinking water, junk food I pick up at stalls and so on. I think I have gotten accustomed to the local environment.

Another reason I no longer mind the dirtiness is due to the fact that Haitians are becoming aware of how important it is to keep their own towns beautiful and are eager to clean the streets, organizing so-called demonstrations with brooms and good intentions, right about the time I came to Haiti. The clean-up activities every morning are taking root in my neighborhood, and it seems to me that such efforts are making the streets cleaner, little by little, than they used to be.

2. Security in Haiti

As a Liaison Officer, I contact and coordinate with the SDF and relevant organizations; I collect information in the SDF camp to report back to the PKO Secretariat; prepare reports based on the materials distributed by the UN on a daily basis; and visit sites where the SDF is deployed. In addition, I make sure that the SDF 's activities are consistent with the rules and regulations by which their assignment is mandated, and sometimes I receive the press. Liaison Officers have to deal with such diverse duties that they visit various places in and around the capital. Under the circumstances, our primary concern is security.

Liaison Officers on duty dress in camouflage for safety reasons. Since I had few opportunities to put on a camouflage clothes back in Japan, I felt a bit uneasy at first, but here in Haiti, I found that work goes more smoothly in the camouflage clothes with the national flag of Japan when I enter the SDF camp or contact peacekeepers from other countries.

As was widely reported in Japan, a major earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. In response to the UN 's decision to reinforce the already-deployed United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti ( MINUSTAH ), Japan started to deploy its SDF peacekeepers. I hear that Haitians tend to believe people in camouflage clothes are MINUSTAH personnel, but I am not sure how this belief affects our safety. Camouflage clothes have their own pros and cons. On the positive side, Haitians may think that people in camouflage clothes must be MINUSTAH peacekeepers with firearms, and that they had better steer clear of them. On the negative side, you may think that camouflage clothes are rather dangerous because it stands out anywhere in town, while some Haitians are not in favor of MINUSTAH . I wear plain clothes when I walk around the town because I draw too much attention in camouflage clothes. That said, I am still a stranger to Haitians, and probably stand out regardless of my clothes anyway.

As I mentioned above, one of my tasks is to produce reports based on the materials distributed by the UN . These reports are full of security information about robberies, murders, kidnappings, assaults, rapes, and thefts. Although I myself have never heard any sound of gunshots or witnessed any scene of a crime, Haiti seems to have a long way to recover peace and security, with heinous crimes rife day and night. Therefore, we refrain from going out alone at night, and make a habit of moving by car with local staff, a driver, and a bodyguard. Security guards armed with shotguns are on duty at our hotel, gas stations, banks, and sometimes shops. Those sights, unfamiliar in Japan, remind me of Haiti's poor security situation.

However, when I stroll around the town on Sunday and stop by some open air markets that sell vegetables, fruit, clothes, and miscellaneous goods, there seem to be lively normal life. They are always thronged with people, and I guess crime occurs less frequently in such an environment.

A stall dealing with folk handicrafts(img)

A stall dealing with folk handicrafts

3. Observations of SDF Activities

The SDF engineering unit deployed in Haiti supports Haiti's reconstruction efforts through such measures as replacing buildings damaged by the earthquake with simpler ones, leveling lands, rehabilitating roads, and removing debris. One of our duties as Liaison Officers is to report on SDF activities to the PKO Secretariat in Japan. I have seen the SDF unit implement multiple operations concurrently.

When I visited a SDF reconstruction site, the Sanatorium of Sigueneau, at Léogâne, located within a 1.5-hour driving distance to the west of Port-au-Prince, I thought the scorching sun must be a major hindrance to the SDF 's hard work. The Sigueneau Sanatorium is a sanatorium for tubercular patients run by a Japanese nun, Akiko Sudo, who has been called "the Mother Theresa of Haiti," for a long time. When the SDF constructed a washhouse in the sanatorium, the Japanese media covered the news. I remember well a unit member told me before the completion that the biggest challenge during the operation included the fierce heat and mosquito bites.

Japanese nun Akiko Sudo(img)

Japanese nun Akiko Sudo

Outlook of the washhouse that the SDF constructed(img)

Outlook of the washhouse that the SDF constructed

In addition to the duties mentioned above, recently the SDF trained Haitians to handle engineering equipment for construction, aiming to support the reconstruction of Haiti by their own hands. Four men and women nominated by the Haitian governmental agency were trained on how to operate the heavy equipment, such as bucket loaders and graders, and acquired qualification in about three weeks. I observed the operational skills exam and attended the completion ceremony. During the exam, I imagined that they had had a tough time to practice operating the equipment in the large field, exposed to the direct sunlight. I am glad to have seen for myself such happy trainees: they said they would make the most of the acquired skills for their work.

What impressed me most was the excellent communication between SDF personnel and the Haitian trainees. Although Creole and French are supposedly the official languages of Haiti, most Haitians seem to speak Creole exclusively. Under the circumstances, with the help of an English-Creole interpreter, and by SDF personnel's own communicate-in-Creole efforts, they trained Haitians how to operate the equipment. A trainer told me it was very challenging but satisfying work because the Haitians' happy expressions showed him how much they were pleased.

A scene from the practical test: a grader(img)

A scene from the practical test: a grader

At the completion ceremony(img)

At the completion ceremonyd

4. Thoughts During My Stay in Haiti

Since this was basically first stay abroad, and my first working experience in a developing country, I had many thoughts besides security. One of my observations in Haiti is the noise and danger caused by too many cars. Despite the economic recession, cars overflow in the city with incessant honks and the busy traffic of trucks. People are always talking rowdily, so I first thought Haiti was filled with hustle and bustle. Pedestrians must be very careful because they and accelerating cars go side by side on the same poorly-paved road. I was about to be hit several times when cars got too closer to me. Traffic lights are almost nowhere, and cutting out and passing seem rather usual, though they are supposed to drive with better manners.

Cars coming and going in the town(img)

Cars coming and going in the town

The water and electricity supply is poor, too. The tap water provided at our office-cum-home hotel is OK for gargling, but not suitable for drinking. We use mineral water instead for drinking and cooking. Securing access to clean water is one of Haiti's big challenges. As for electricity, power outages are routine day and night, which reminds us of the volatile conditions in Haiti. However, a life without electricity may be normal if we take into account the fact that people who can use electricity are only about 30% of the population. Even for those who can afford it, electricity is only available for about 10 hours a day on average.

On the other hand, because Haiti is blessed with nature, there are plenty of good tourist attractions. I hear that there are beautiful places such as Jacmel and Les Cayes in the south and southwest of Haiti though I have not had an opportunity to go there yet. Since even Port-au-Prince is rich with nature, I assume planning a tourist-friendly environment is the key to developing the country. However, Haiti is said to be the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where half the population is forced to live on less than a dollar a day. Developing the tourism sector will remain nothing but a dream unless Haitians' living standard is improved. Furthermore, Haitians may remain much too occupied with reconstruction works to think about attracting tourists. However, I long for the day will come when a lot of foreigners will visit Haiti, endowed with a beautiful sea and mountains, where the former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife spent their honeymoon.

The coast of Jacmel, southern Haiti(img)

The coast of Jacmel, southern Haiti

5 Concluding Remarks

Haiti, whose many problems are compounded by its poverty, has suffered from the devastating earthquake, in addition to annual hurricane attacks from July to October. While Japan was also severely harmed by the earthquake, I heard the news that SDF relief teams would withdraw from the Tohoku region excluding Fukushima Prefecture by August 1. Indeed, Japan will need a long time for reconstruction, but I cannot help finding the difference between those two countries. In Haiti, after 19 months since the earthquake, debris remains scattered here and there, and support from the international community is desperately needed to restore stable life, whereas in Japan, SDF relief teams withdraw in as short as five months. One thing that seems to hinder Haiti's reconstruction is its precarious government. Although the President was elected as early as May, a new Prime Minister has yet to appear on the political scene, even now in August; thereby a new government is being eagerly awaited.

Damage from a downpour(img)

Damage from a downpour

During my stay, I have had several chances to enjoy Haitian folk dances with a voodoo flavor (a religion that is formed with the mixture of Christianity and animism that originated from Africa) and listen to music called kompa. Those performances were very energetic, and made me feel that Haitians are proud of their unique culture. People are full of life, and I am sure that this energy will lead Haiti to what it used to be, little by little.

Haitians dancing a folk dance(img)

Haitians dancing a folk dance

I have learned a lot from my short but invaluable experience of three months as a Liaison Officer within the framework of Japan's International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Haiti. I wish to make the best use of this experience in my future work, and will do my best to imagine how developing countries like Haiti should best grapple with their problems.

In Port-au-Prince, August 8, 2011