The Digital Journalist
March 2004

by Michael Kamber

Gonaives, February 14-20:

The entrance to the city is blocked by a shipping container. We leave our cars and climb onto mopeds, then wind through dozens of barricades into the rebel-held city. The rebels --a motley crew of young men in goodwill box t-shirts armed with an assortment of weapons --are easy to find and happy to see us. Several speak excellent English, having been deported from the US on a variety of charges. Their leader is the rum-swilling Butteur Metayer. Butteur's gang believes the government killed his brother, Amiot, a convicted arsonist and Aristide henchman who got out of control. Their rebellion sparked the revolution.

Michael Kamber/Polaris for the New York Times
After a few hours of conversation with locals, it quickly becomes clear that this "revolution" is in fact a dispute between hired thugs and drug gangs. Yet it has taken on a life of its own and could lead to Aristide's overthrow. A dozen other journalists and I set up camp at the Hotel Chachou and wait for the government police to come reclaim the town from the rebels. The ensuing battle is what we're here for.

Having appropriated much of the Project Care food for their personal use, the rebels have little bread to offer the people. Instead they offer a circus. Each afternoon we follow the rebels as they parade through the streets, drinking Barbancourt and Prestige, singing songs, brandishing their guns: an AK with that graceful banana clip, squared off M-14's, an awkward, blunt UZI, ugly garish silver .38's. They fondle them, work the slides, handle the extra clips and you can see what they really want to do is fire them. The townspeople fall in enthusiastically, singing and dancing. One man brings a speargun and a motorcycle helmet.

A routine develops. In the afternoon we shoot the demonstrations, in the morning, the funerals. Scores are settled, suspected Aristide supporters tracked down, innocent civilians killed in the increasingly lawless town. The morning streets resound with wailing widows and brass bands playing funeral dirges. A mother of two, seven months pregnant, stands alone outside the funeral home where her husband lies in a coffin. She screams into the morning air, hysterical with grief. Ashamed, I move in to capture the emotion, telling myself that I'm trying to do justice to her husband. At the hospital, there is little medicine and many doctors have fled. Out back, the morgue is overflowing. Dead infants lie stacked in a pile on a shelf.

Later in the week, Guy Phillipe, a former police commander and coup plotter, and Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former death-squad leader, arrive from exile in the Dominican Republic with a few dozen troops to take charge of the revolution.

Port au Prince, Feb 22-March 3:

The media horde has arrived: TV crews, reporters from all over the world, 30 or so photojournalists --the Americans, young and brash; the French, mature, chainsmoking sophisticates; a large contingent of Latinos from all over the region, generous and outgoing. Even the artists are here, Antonin and Luc ...but there are too many of us.

Some days it's impossible to make a frame without several other shooters in the background. Rodrigo, a young AP photographer, puts a picture on the wire which captures the situation: a dozen of us intently photographing a single policeman kneeling by a car.

I am introduced to the wire shooter, the one who took the picture of the stream of refugees fleeing the fighting -- a photo that ran on front pages all over the world and sparked much of the media's arrival. And there's some dispute; a friend was there shooting alongside the wire shooter. She says it was mostly people going to market -- maybe some refugees mixed in, but not the exodus the caption says. Shades of Liberia: a kid blasting away in the heat of battle with a teddy bear backpack, front page all over the world. Except there was no battle that day and he's not a kid -- the fighters had just looted a warehouse full of children's backpacks, and he was playing to the photographer. What remains is the image, the impression of the situation. And the knowledge that we have to be very careful with our captions.

Now the rebels are picking up steam, there's no talk of the government retaking Gonaives. Instead, people start to speculate on when the rebels will arrive in Port au Prince. The streets become increasingly tense. Aristide's supporters, the Chimeres, young, angry men from slums like City Soleil and La Saline, are filling the streets with burning barricades, waving guns at us as we pass through. It becomes dangerous to move around.

I head out one morning with a female photojournalist to check on conditions on the outskirts. At a barricade made of crushed cars, stones and scrap metal, a group of young men, some wearing masks, shout and brandish guns. A policeman in a truck in front of us confers with the Chimeres, waves us through, then roars off. We drive around the barricade but the militia blocks our path. In a moment, the young men have surrounded us, screaming, faces contorted in rage. They order us out of the car, hold shotguns to our heads, search the vehicle. They find our bulletproof vests in the back of the car, and the hysteria rises to a fevered pitch. Now they have proof we are helping the rebels, they scream in our faces, spit flying from their mouths. They fire shots in the air, then point the guns back at us. They will kill us, we are rebels, we are rebel sympathizers they say. The other photojournalist steps between them and her driver, who they seem most intent on killing, shows them ID, tries to reason with them. After several long minutes they lower their guns and shout at us to be gone.

The chaos grows by the day, bodies litter the roadside in the morning, hands bound, shots to the back of the head. The faces are frequently battered, their pants unbuttoned or pulled down -- their last moments ones of unimaginable horror.

Early on the morning of the 27th, we hear the port is being looted. We race through the streets and arrive to see thousands of impoverished Haitians rushing through the gates with goods of all types stacked on their heads. Some of the men are armed; they simply wait at the gates and rob those exiting of their short-lived prizes. They shout and point the guns at us, waving us back. We retreat, then inch slowly closer, trying to shoot frames when they're distracted. The body of a man killed an hour earlier lies in the gutter, people walk around him, over him, intent on their bonanza.

Michael Kamber/Polaris for the New York Times
Two days later the phone rings at 5:30 am. Aristide is at the airport. We rush to the cars and fly through the empty streets. The airport is eerily deserted. We scale a chainlink fence and climb to the roof. A caravan of SUVs is driving off the runway; we've missed his departure by just minutes. I drive to the central plaza with several others; about 6:30 Radio Metropole announces the news. There is a stunned silence, then the sound of gunfire and angry voices. A woman runs through the streets crying, young men descend on a gas station, hurling rocks through the window, then step through the shattered glass to take what they can. Stores, another gas station, a Western Union office are burned, the streets are filled with smoke and running figures and gunfire.

We try to work in the shadows and shoot what we can with long lenses. We get calls from the others: they fired at Les's car, also at Gary's. Laurence, a Haitian fixer working with a TV crew has glass in her hair from a bullet that shattered the car window inches over her head. The Asians have the best luck --Taiwan and Japan are the largest givers of international aid to the country --and are left alone to document the chaos.

The next morning we drive out towards St. Marc to meet the incoming rebels. We pass over a small rise and their caravan is suddenly in front of us, lead by a police truck with flashing lights. There are about twenty vehicles in the convoy, nearly half are press. We work our way through the streets and are met by cheering crowds. The Aristide supporters who had vowed to fight to the death are nowhere to be seen and the rebels drive to the central plaza unopposed. Less than a hundred soldiers with primitive rifles, in a collection of battered overheating SUVs, have effectively overthrown Haiti's government.

The day Aristide left Haiti, I stood over a man's body on Avenue John Brown in Port au Prince. He'd been dead an hour or so, his blood running in rivulets down into the gutter. Depending on who you talked to, he was a looter or a civilian caught in the crossfire. On my right, another photographer, Les Stone, worked intently, composing and shooting. Something about the scene felt familiar. It took me a moment, then I realized Les and I had been here before, right here, on this very street photographing bullet-riddled civilians. The year was 1987. We were young then, seeing for the first time the violence men do to one another. Seventeen years later, little has changed in Haiti.

© Michael Kamber

Michael Kamber is covering the Haiti conflict for the New York Times. He is a member of Polaris Images.