PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Cite Soleil looks like a place where an American soldier might be expected to fight. An impossibly crowded warren of tin-roofed shacks, open sewers and blind alleys, it is one of the poorest slums in the Americas, with a long history of unrest, crime and violence.
So picture the scene: Just as dawn was breaking Sunday, a battle-hardened platoon from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division rolled into the area behind a well-armed convoy of Brazilian soldiers attached to the United Nations’ longtime peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
Smoke from cooking and trash fires filled the air, reducing visibility in places to less than a city block but failing to cover the smell of rotting garbage and human waste. Pigs and feral dogs rooted through trash.
It was an ominous setting for what turned out to be an entirely benign event. As soldiers traded fist bumps with children, good-natured adults formed orderly lines to receive the first major shipment of food aid to reach the Haitian capital’s Cite Soleil neighborhood since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“Whatever they give us, we’re satisfied,” said Wilna Vertus, a 21-year-old mother of six, “because we don’t have anything.”
The U.S. military has been in Haiti since the day after the 7.0-magnitude quake, providing much of the muscle behind getting aid into the country and out to the population. For troops here, many of them veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not the mission they trained for, and some critics have suggested that they are not getting enough aid to enough people fast enough.
Still, it has cast the troops in a gratifying, if somewhat unfamiliar, role as peaceful warriors who save lives rather than take them.
“It’s kind of cool for a change,” said Sgt. Eric DeJesus, a 26-year-old from New Jersey who was at the wheel of a Humvee as the convoy made its way into Cite Soleil. “I mean, we do this in Iraq, but at the same time there we’re killing people, you know what I mean?”
Given the history of U.S. intervention in Haiti, which included a 20-year occupation in the early 20th century, Haitians might be expected to be resentful or fearful of a large contingent of U.S. soldiers and Marines. So far that does not seem to be the case.
The prevailing attitude was summed up by Saintalis Frisnel, a 37-year-old man with four children he can barely feed and cannot afford to educate. He was clutching a pair of liter bottles of water and half a dozen high-protein biscuits he had just received from American soldiers. It was not enough, he said. It could hardly feed his family for even a day. But he wasn’t complaining.
“They’re doing good for me,” he said of the Americans. “If it was my government, I could never get a chance to touch one of these crackers.”
Sgt. 1st Class Chad Lewis had been to Haiti before on a humanitarian mission. But he has also had more than his share of combat deployments, including stints in Iraq and Kosovo. And when he arrived in Haiti, he said he was loaded up with ammunition and prepared for the worst.
Since then, he’s been thinking of taking off his protective gear “and walking around like everybody else.”
“Part of me loves the combat job,” he said, “because that’s what I do. … But I’m also a softie. I think anybody with a heart would want to be here helping.”