The Time I Celebrated Carnival with Gang Leaders in Haiti

The Mardi Gras parties in Haiti are legendary. But living in the slums of Port-Au-Prince, one award-winning photographer discovered a very different kind of celebration.

The Time I Celebrated Carnival with Gang Leaders in Haiti

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This article originally appeared on True.Ink, which celebrates The Noble Pursuit, a mix of adventure, expertise, and time well spent. A revival of an iconic American publication where legends like Ernest Hemingway wrote about their exotic adventures, True.Ink is a place where tall tales come alive.

It must have been after midnight when it happened, about the time Carnival erupts in Citi Soleil, a ghetto housing half a million in its labyrinth of side streets, shanties and arguably one of the most dangerous places to live in the world.

There was no place that had suffered more kidnappings and killings, according to the crime stats, and even those numbers were impossible to verify considering the loose collection of neighborhoods amid the shanties were too dangerous for the Haitian police to enter.

Citi Soleil was my home. I had been living there under the protection of Afriel, a gang leader of the most lawless and polluted section of the slum, with its tin shanties, mountains of charcoal ash and abandoned corpses occasionally rotting along the trash-strewn waterfront. His name alone was a harbinger of what was to come. Afriel meant Little Angel, and as we became close friends over the years I witnessed how Afriel had tried to change the endless cycle of violence and fear that permeated this place, but even he couldn’t control the demons here, sometimes having to inhabit one himself.

I had rented a flat on Rue 22, and had made the risky choice to venture out into the streets during Carnival.

Photos by Flip Holsinger
A news truck is stranded amid a sea of people during a carnival-like street party near Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2013.

I was with Afriel and his Baze Boys, or lieutenants, who kept me safe amid a mob that was growing by hour into the evening, hundreds of bodies throbbing against each other, the konpa music pounding against the smoke-filled air from jimmy rigged boom boxes and spliced together electric chords. A maddening scene was unfolding. Beer bottles passed from wheelbarrows filled with sawdust-covered blocks of ice. Women deep-frying pate in large, shallow pans under hot coals, the blobs of meat and stuffed dough topped with blistering spices. A crowd of girls with short skirts sipping beer from an old woman with a small plastic cooler on a curb, wearing their skin-tight skirts in hot pink, bright yellow, cobalt blue.

And there he was, on the porch of a nearby house. A crowd had formed, pushing and shoving. In the center was Ti Chemeri, the general of the slums, warlord of the warlords, and a name that means Little Criminal in Haiti. He was drunk on kler’on and surrounded by a circle of younger women. An argument had broken out, Chimeri let out a scream, and then I saw it. He reached out with his hand and grabbed one of his girls by the throat and started to squeeze. The slum’s core was erupting. A volcano of violence was about to explode. The General had a girl’s throat in his hand. A sentence was about to be executed.

I turned to Afriel to alert him. But he had already left my side, and was now fighting his way through the mob, elbowing through the swarming confusion of darkness to confront the General. A Carnival gang war, I thought, was imminent.

I should have left after my first or second year in Cité Soleil, but after a while there was life in the slums that was unlike any other I had experienced: primal, compassionate, inventive.

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Each day, here was a different danger, and the madness was addictive. I had also become a supporter of Afriel, a gang leader who was a political reformer who I had come to believe in, despite knowing he had killed or ordered the killings of others in the slums.

We met over a threat. I had arrived in Cité Soleil in the spring of 2006. The slum was a labyrinth, and I quickly lost my way, and ventured towards the water. Wharf Soleil. His turf.

“I will have your cameras now,” he said, popping out from a dark corner and smiling.

Back then, Haiti was still deep into what seemed like an endless war between the United Nation’s troops and gang leaders of the slums like Chimeri and Afriel and their contemporaries. These gang leaders were crucial to the solution of Haiti’s political future. Neighborhood capos like Afriel and Chimeri could deliver pockets of votes, and they were still armed with a supply of guns supplied by the CIA and delivered courtesy of Haiti’s paranoid priest-turned-dictator, Aristide. The front line of the war was Rue 9, a tormented corridor slicing through the rotten edge of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and the de facto border for Cité Soleil.

The doom of the place was palpable, and the numbers were frightening. By the end of 2005, Haiti held the undesirable title of kidnap capital of the world, outpacing even Colombia. The reason was the gangs, who unlike other corrupt nation states did not have access to drugs and instead created their own black market of flesh. By the spring of 2006, the borders had closed. It was strictly forbidden for U.N. personnel (and most other aid agency staff) to enter the slums. Fearful a humanitarian crisis would erupt, a nightmare scenario only heightened with a shortage of food and medical aid, Lizbeth Cullety-Vieux, the chief of political affairs for the United Nations, arranged to have me smuggled into the slum to report on the situation.

A man paid to wear paint in support of then President Martelly works with other paid jesters and instigators to ignite a crowd during a street party near Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2013.
A man paid to wear paint in support of then President Martelly works with other paid jesters and instigators to ignite a crowd during a street party near Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2013.

And now here I was, only fifteen minutes into my assignment, about to get my cameras jacked by Afriel.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” I told him, grabbing my trusty Nikon.

Afriel removed a Glock from his waist, threatening me with the pistol.

“Sorry man,” I said, refusing to give up my camera.

And that was it. Afriel put the gun down and I had passed his test. He was a different kind of gang leader, I would come to learn. There was a softness in his eyes. I didn’t need to fear him, and after I showed him a few photographs, we found our common bond.

“I’m an artist,” he told me.

His medium was music. Rap. Folk. Back then, he was only a “Baze Boy” or lieutenant, looking to work his way up the chain of power in the slums. He was once a stranger here too. He had come after moving here as a young boy with his father, whom he claimed was a legendary voodoo priest.

Baze boys sing songs of overcoming and encouragement at an orphanage in Cité Soleil, 2014.
Baze boys sing songs of overcoming and encouragement at an orphanage in Cité Soleil, 2014.

Afriel was a voodoo priest too, he told me, and explained the practice to me.

In voodoo, everything has a spirit associated with it, from trees to oceans. And these spirits have jobs and roles, many of which are malevolent. The voodoo list of spirit personalities, I came to learn, is like a Hindu list of gods, and every spirit demands attention. During a voodoo festival, for instance, you are expected to bring bottles of rum, scented oils, and other gifts. An elder at a ceremony once explained to me the liquor and oils are to please the spirits because the spirits don’t want you showing up stinky and empty-handed.

Sex is also central to voodoo. Or the depiction of carnal acts. A voodoo priestess will grind up onto a woman’s leg and grope and moan against her as she calls for a particular body of spirits to appear for her specific requests. Sex and death are almost always acted out during a ceremony, which involves specific depictions of the most feared voodoo spirits like Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead, the great trickster. Baron Samedi is said to shape shift (and give voodoo priests and priestesses the power to shape shift) and turn himself into animals like tigers and lions, and often depicted in homemade headgear.

Over time, Afriel became one of my teachers. Not only about voodoo, but politics. Early on in our friendship, he walked me through slums so dense that every passageway was filled with dozens huddled around charcoal fires, radios blaring and knuckle-thin dogs begging from a skittish distance. Here, I was introduced to Cité Soleil’s micro economy: the beer man, the pate sellers, the chicken lady, the fresh juice slushy girl, the favorite restaurant (one table in a grease-smeared concrete room where a woman offers you fish and rice) and the night club (a room the size of a small garage, and prostitutes charged three dollars per session).

Money ruled here. Over time, Afriel became my friend, but I became his patron. For protection, I paid him a few dollars every week, and eventually then the prices increased. Soon, he and his lieutenants had moved into the bottom floor of my building, an occupation I supported, until I found Afriel walking around wearing my underwear and using all my deodorant. And when we learned that his wife, then pregnant with his first son, was inflicted with a voodoo curse, which was later interpreted and diagnosed as late stage cancer, I covered the cost of her funeral and that of her stillborn. These financial gestures, along with friendly ones, had drawn us closer.

I had to justify Afriel’s violent temper. Here in the slums, the use of violence was an art form. Once, a few of his Baze Boys awoke me in the middle of the night to watch Afriel in action. It was dark, and in the glow of a single solar street lamp I saw the limp figure of a man that had been roped to a lamp post. His head was bleeding into the gutter at the curb and Afriel was hovering over him, smiling and explaining to all that revenge was warranted because the guy had stolen a woman’s cooking pot. Afriel then punched him in the face, the blood splattering in the air under the street light. Then a pair of thugs sprinted towards the tortured man with Olympic speed, one carrying a chunk of concrete, the other a two-by-four, each smashing their weapons into the bleeding thief’s head. Afriel ordered his ropes loosened, then gave the man water and a cookie, perhaps proud that he’d punished the man and allowed him to live. Other slum generals would have killed the thief for sure. Afriel, in his own eyes, was an emancipator here, and he was proud to be a leader that could forgive.

I knew he had killed people though. I never asked. After a few months living in Citi Soleil, I stopped asking a lot of questions. One night, sitting with Afriel and talking about his exploits, we passed along a crippled guitar that was missing a string and most of its lacquer. We opened a large case of beer, turned on my recorder, and they sang late into the night. Most of the songs were about politics and war, but one song they sang for me. It was a love song about Lyuba, a woman I had met, and I still have the recording.

Here it is.

Back at Carnival, the streets were swirling with chaos and Afriel had disappeared.

I saw him pushing his way onto the porch of the house where a crowd had formed around Chimeri. The General had his hands around the throat of a teenage girl. It was an edgy time. Throughout the year, the gang leaders had jockeyed for power in the slums, warring for money and guns. Chimeri had been elected by these gangleaders as their own de facto president, each a capo of a district in the slums, responsible for keeping order and earning kickbacks. A lack of resources had forced them to build coalitions. But with the influx of cash and guns in advance of the presidential elections, greed had taken over. Many of the Baze Boys were defecting to Boston, another neighborhood, now apparently flush with cash and guns.

“Those guys are fucking fleas!” Afriel had told me about the defectors to Boston. “Those motherfuckers don’t have any respect. They shoot and fuck and kill anything. They have no reason.”

The defections were ultimately the responsibility of Chimeri, the slum general, now blind drunk in the Carnival. In the scrum of activity, Afriel had made it onto the porch, and he and others had convinced him not to sacrifice the girl in an impromptu demonstration of power and fear mongering that the defectors in Boston were supporting.

A fisherman and his family joke with one another in an abandoned sea-side building that serves as a net-mending station in the heart of the warlord-controlled slum, Cite Soleil.
A fisherman and his family joke with one another in an abandoned sea-side building that serves as a net-mending station in the heart of the warlord-controlled slum, Cite Soleil.

“Chimeri ordered all the families of the defectors to Boston evicted from their homes throughout the slum,” he told when he returned.

“He is bloodthirsty,” Afriel went on, claiming he had tried to reason with the drunk Chimeri. “I told him if he took out his vengeance on the families he would make permanent enemies of everyone.”

The young girl who Chimeri had grabbed by the throat was the wife of a defector, he said, and a rumor was spreading that Chimeri was going to unleash a hit mob to kill the families of all defectors to Boston. It was a frightening prospect, even for here, but the party went on.

Somewhere else in Port Au Prince—and around the entire nation of Haiti—a different, more traditional party was underway. Carnival floats were no doubt filling the streets, and parade goers were dressed in costumes and paper mache, some carrying statues, others covered in gold paint and glitter. In the crowd, bare chested women marched out into the masses wearing elaborate headgear in the shape of lions, tigers, and red demons, symbols of pervasive voodoo spirits. But where we were in Cité Soliel, there were no costumes because those who called this place home would never spend their scavenged money on paper mache and fashion the cheap paper into demons. Here the demons were real and spreading their wings through the streets. On this night, one dark angel had won out over the other.

* * *

A few names have been changed to protect the author from vengeful gang leaders.