The Haitian political activist Marie Antoinette Duclair appears to have been unaware that two men on a motorbike were following her car through the badly lit streets of Port-au-Prince.
Her passenger on the night of 29 June was a journalist, Diego Charles. They had been attending a meeting, and she was now, at 11 o’clock at night, dropping him at his home in the Christ-Roi area of Haiti’s capital.
As Charles walked to his door the gunmen on the motorbike opened fire, killing him first before murdering Duclair as she sat in her car.
Just over a week later another assassination drowned out interest in that bloody night of violence: that of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, who was gunned down in his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince by mercenaries in an apparent coup attempt.
If there is a link between the two events it is that they are both brutally representative of the situation in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, a country that since 2018 has been convulsed by protests and violence, where guns – and those prepared to use them – are the currency in an escalating crisis.
In those days, a few weeks before the advent of the global coronavirus pandemic, Haiti’s long-running political crisis had brought demonstrations and violence to the streets, even if few then had any sense where it would lead.
“We’re fighting against a system where we can’t eat and we don’t get paid. That’s why we’ve taken to the streets,” Drelien explained then. “The president [Moïse] isn’t working for us. He’s no friend of the people – only of the bourgeoisie and businessmen, while we live in poverty.”
Now Moïse is dead, assassinated in his private residence in the Pelerin 5 district of Pétion-Ville, the wealthy enclave where Haiti’s political and business elite live in the hills above the capital. And Haiti’s long-running crisis has reached full throttle.
It has become routine to see one of the world’s most corrupt and ill-governed states lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe, amid coups, failed governments and natural disasters. But this current crisis brings a particular question to the fore – how, despite being the recipient of $13bn (£9.5bn) in international aid since the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people, has the situation for Haitians, by most indicators, continued to worsen?
The very modest gains in poverty reduction in Haiti, according to the World Bank, has gone into reverse, with 60% of the country living in poverty and the richest 20% of the population holding more than 64% of its income.
Haiti is unusual among failed and fragile nations. It is not only an “aid state”, hugely dependent on external development assistance and remittances from Haitians living abroad, but one where aid and foreign intervention, far from helping, has helped undermine an almost nonexistent administration.
Few who have not visited Haiti can fully comprehend the absence of services and institutions, planning or state direction.
Even as the current crisis was beginning, in an interview three years ago, Joël Boutrue, then deputy special representative for the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti, was blunt. “Haiti would be better off without aid,” he said. “Or at least, without the bad kind of aid that allows the administration and the elites to continue without changing.
“It would be better to create the conditions in which change could happen,” he added. “If we get involved, we should do so in an intelligent way, even if that is less visible in terms of the value it brings.”
And while it is only a part of the picture, it is a significant one. The world’s first black republic and the first country to be founded by former slaves, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. The new nation faced blockades, isolation and protracted interference over two centuries from white-majority powers, including France, which imposed a century of impoverishing reparations for the loss of its slaves, only paid off in 1947, in exchange for recognition.
While some of the toxic consequences of intervention have been obvious, others have been more subtle. As US historian Robert Taber wrote in the Washington Post last week, some have been well documented, “including the Clinton administration cratering the Haitian rice market in the mid-1990s and a UN peacekeeping force reintroducing cholera in the mid-2000s.”
“The notion of Haiti as an aid state is a corrective to the idea of failed state,” says Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term and returned from Haiti a few days before Moïse’s assassination. “It’s not just about aid itself but about foreign interference and intervention.
“And when you talk about the ‘aid state’, it is a country [in which] current institutions have been shaped more by outside actors than internal ones. That has manifested itself in different ways, not least by the fact that since the years of the [Baby Doc] Duvalier dictatorship (which ended in 1986), aid has bypassed government, which has had a deeply corrosive effect.
“Rather than strengthening institutions, the mechanisms by which it has been delivered inherently undermine those same institutions, especially in more recent decades, which has seen the outsourcing of the state,” said Johnston.
“Economic policies have been imposed by multilateral banks, like the IMF, which has seen agricultural subsidies slashed. The education and health systems have been turned over to private actors like NGOs. All of which has created a separation between the people and a government that is not governing.”
If that has hollowed out Haiti’s institutions, foreign interventions including aid policy have had, in Johnston’s telling, a more insidious effect.
“Aid to Haiti has been used for political purposes going back years. It is transactional. It has gone up under certain leaders and it has gone down when someone isn’t liked, or it goes to an organisation that shares the interest of the donor country,” he said.
This profound disconnect between a barely governing ruling class, drawn from a wealthy elite, and the barely governed, leaves little incentive for those notionally in charge to combat Haiti’s many problems – from the violent criminality represented by its gangs to its lack of services, rampant poverty and devastating environmental despoliation.
In a Haiti where politicians and criminals alike enjoy impunity, politics historically has relied on the armed gangs – operating like paramilitaries – rather than electoral accountability to remain in office, from Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes to the Chimères [or ghosts] of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era, and the gangs used by both sides under Jovenel Moïse.
“The thing is that I don’t think a lot people realise how aid has been used intentionally to weaken the Haitian state. There’s a long, if little-known, paper trail, going back to the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, particularly involving the US,” he said.
“There are documents that very specifically talk about using private, voluntary organisations – now known as NGOs – to funnel money away from the Haitian government to recreate its functions elsewhere.
“It happened again explicitly during the period of the Aristide government [the leftwing president who fell victim to a coup and was reinstated by a US military intervention] and there are public documents from USAid and other government agencies saying we were withholding money and giving it to private organisations to weaken the policies of Aristide.”
The consequence, as critics have pointed out in recent years, has been to deepen the long-running democratic crisis in Haiti, with electoral participation plummeting since Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in the 1990s to the first post-quake elections, which saw less than 25% of the population vote.
Recent governments have been largely divorced from Haitians’ lives of poverty, nominated from within the same tight circle of politically connected oligarchs with the blessing of foreign powers, not least Washington, which have pursued short-term stability over long-term sustainability.
All of which came to a head in the PetroCaribe scandal that began during the presidency of Michel Martelly and in which Moïse became embroiled when he succeeded Martelly.
The $3.2bn PetroCaribe scheme – from which about $2bn is alleged to have been stolen – was an alternative model to improve the Haitian situation, in which funds freed up by a deferred payment credit scheme for Venezuelan energy were then to be dispensed by Haiti’s government for large-scale development projects.
Where the PetroCaribe scandal was different – if not in the corruption – was the ability of ordinary Haitians and Haitian institutions to ask what had happened to the missing billions.
“The thing about PetroCaribe,” says Katz, “was that it was supposed to be the thing that the post-earthquake reconstruction was not. Venezuela in its munificence was going free up all this money for Haiti to spend on itself.
“If there had been a better leader, more accountable to the people, rather than Martelly, it might have done some good.”
Jean Marc Brissau, a young Haitian who studied as lawyer in Port-au-Prince before leaving for the US, identifies another critical issue that has contributed to Haiti’s problems: the exodus of the country’s well-educated people, who have been put off becoming involved in the problematic politics.
“The gangs control the country, so educated people like myself can’t find a place in Haiti,” he said. “We don’t feel welcome. You don’t feel like you would want to be involved in politics and be labelled as corrupt or killed or kidnapped.
“So you say to yourself I can better change things from abroad. It’s not the way it should be, but this is the way it is.”
The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).
All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”
McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.
“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?”
“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.
Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance.
Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee.
McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.”
Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.
“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.
On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.
Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.
It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.
A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.
Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.
“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”
Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.
The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.
But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.
Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.
Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.
Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.
The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.
The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.
The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.
“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”
Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”
After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.
The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.
It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.
The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.
Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.