When Jean Bertrand Aristide fled to exile in 2004, Haiti fell into armed chaos. The UN stepped in with emergency troops to restore order and later established permanent peace keeping forces, which are still here today. Haiti is an insular independent country occupied by the rest of the world. Nineteen countries maintain a military presence here, and fifty provide police support. Brazil is the kingpin, they are responsible for Port au Prince, and the Commander of Brazilian forces commands the entire endeavor. Grand Goave is under the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka, which maintains nine facilities in five communities, headquartered in Leogone.
Sri Lankan forces change out every six months; there have been fifteen units during the course of the mission. The sixteenth group has just arrived to transition, and the current Commander, Colonel Srilanth, sent an embossed invitation to Lex and his family for dinner to celebrate their time together and meet the new Commander, Colonel Kithsiri. Lex invited me to join them, and once I got past the dilemma of having nothing appropriate to wear to a military dinner from my cache of microfiber work pants and wrinkled shirts, I looked forward to the event.
When the guard opens the gate of the Sri Lankan compound in Leogone, a soldier marches at a steady cadence in front of our car, guiding us to their chosen parking spot. We disembark and walk along narrow sidewalks between prefabricated buildings with occasional shrines along the way; a Christmas tree lit Madonna, a glowing Buddha. I learn that Sri Lankans are primarily Buddhist, but also Roman Catholic, Christian, and Hindi. The camp has altars for all Sri Lankan faiths.
Dinner is set up in a large community room with high ceilings, sumptuous leather chairs, a billiard table and a long table with formal place settings. We shake hands through a receiving line. Most of the hosts speak English, no one speaks Creole. We sit in the deep sofa for guava juice served in stemware and the most delicious cashews, delicately toasted. I am careful to remember the protocol I learned, slipping the nuts into my mouth with my right hand rather than my left.
I am sitting next to the Colonel Srilanth, who is delighted to answer all my questions about his country. He shares a video about Sri Lankan history, geography and tourism, as well as one about their humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in Haiti. Between the Colonel’s love of his country and the promotional materials, I come away with a solid social studies understanding of Sri Lanka, 20 million people on an island 472 kilometers long by 250 kilometers wide with a treasure trove of gem stones, all kinds of monkeys, gorgeous beaches, a World Heritage rain forest and incredible ancient ruins. I would love to visit this beautiful country, but the three days it takes to fly from Haiti to Sri Lanka (through the US and Dubai and many customs officials) and two days to return is daunting.
Dinner is a buffet feast of Chicken Kuruma, pork curry, spicy eggplant, syrupy Vegetable Chopey, savory vegetable salad, rice, noodles, and poppadum chips with sweet cream ice cream for dessert. I sit opposite a civilian who has been in Haiti for two and half years and has lived through most of the reconstruction from the earthquake’s epicenter.
According to Renee, the UN’s occupation of Haiti is both less severe and less generous than a single occupier might be. Haitians may fear US Marines, famous for shooting first and asking questions later, more than they fear the UN, but Haitians are also accustomed to occupiers who provide ‘stuff’, and the UN does little of that. Each region has a unique relationship with their assigned force; The Leogone area is fortunate that the Sri Lankans are motivated to provide humanitarian service as well as maintain military order. But they can’t do as much as they used to, since 2004 budgets have been cut everywhere.
Our hosts display a formal yet genuine hospitality; they would never yawn or even shift in their seats to imply it is time to go. After nine o’clock Lex announces we must leave; we have to run a clinic and pour concrete tomorrow. We shake hands through another receiving line and an escort shows us to our car. Sri Lankans halfway around the globe from their home are lovely people. Someday I would like to spend time with them in their own country.
Banquet at Sri Lankan Headquarters of UN Peacekeeping Mission in Leogone, Haiti.