7 U.N. troops hurt, attacked by Haitians blaming foreigners for cholera epidemic

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Protesters throwing rocks and bottles lashed out against the Haitian government and United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti’s second largest city Monday, venting fear and anger over a cholera epidemic that many Haitians believe came from foreigners.

The national police and U.N. forces used tear-gas to disperse hundreds of angry demonstrators who tried to burn down a police station and attack a U.N. base in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. Other incidents occurred in the central plateau town of Hinche, where seven U.N. soldiers were injured.

Protests targeted Nepalese peacekeeping troops, because many Haitians blame them for bringing cholera to Haiti, which has not suffered an outbreak of the potentially deadly intestinal bacteria in more than 50 years.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that the strain of cholera that has killed more than 900 and sickened another 15,000 appears to have its origins in South Asia – although the same strain has traveled the world for 50 years.

The U.N. mission in Haiti investigated latrines and sanitation at a base used by Nepalese forces along the Meille River in the Artibonite Valley, where outbreak began in late October. Reporters from the Associated Press who visited the Nepalese base in late October reported seeing “foul smelling waste” trickling toward the river.

Vincenzo Pugliese, spokesman for the U.N. mission here, said that the Nepalese battalion reported no cholera among its soldiers, and that tests of water inside and around the camp showed no cholera. The Haitian health ministry also ran tests, he said.

“There is no objective direct link you can make between the soldiers and the outbreak,” Pugliese said.

“In the blame game, Nepal was fingered. Their troops are camped along the river, there is cholera suspected in the river, and it hit the river communities first,” said Nigel Fisher, chief of the U.N. humanitarian mission in Haiti, who stressed that the source would probably never be known.

“My question is: How do we protect people now?” Fisher said. “How do we protect the living?”

After the earthquake, a hurricane and cholera outbreak – and few visible signs of recovery – emotions are high as Haitians prepare to cast votes for Nov. 28 elections. Candidates have echoed charges that foreigners – and 12,000 blue-helmeted U.N. troops in particular – brought disease to the devastated nation.

At a Sunday night forum in Miami, which is home to a large Haitian immigrant community, presidential candidate Garaudy Laguerre said, “Too often, Haitians die without reasons and without consequences. This time, there will be consequences.” If elected, Laguerre vowed an investigation to determine the source of the outbreak.

“I listen to the radio every day, and there is a lot of discussion about the source of the outbreak,” said U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten. “It is my understanding the science is not definitive.” He added that the Haitian government has stressed that placing blame for a communicable disease is not what is important now.

“Cholera here is going to get worse here for some time. We know this not because this is Haiti, but because this is what cholera does,” Merten said.