PeaceWorx is a short film series produced by Blue Sky Project that explores the role of often small, homegrown actions that counter violence, isolation, indifference, and hopelessness.
What happens when a baz, or “gang,” in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, decides they’ve had enough of violence and oppression? They use the ultimate power—peace—to connect with other baz and begin the complicated marathon of retaking their city.
I first went to Haiti with my producing partner Ashley Sands O’Winter in the fall of 2014. My only point of reference at the time was what I had watched on the news: poverty, gangs, overcrowding, and natural disasters. I’ve seen it now firsthand, and it’s certainly true. However, I would soon learn of the incompleteness of that picture.
We arrived during the aborted elections the week that Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc” died. That night, there was a moment when it seemed the country might slide into chaos. It was understood that his supporters had stockpiled guns and were ready to use them if they were attacked. If things turned violent, we planned to escape over the mountains into the Dominican Republic. It was during that evening, while we sat waiting to see what would happen, when I began to understand the courage of the youth we had come to film.
We had been invited to Haiti to cover the story of a group of young people who, for the previous ten years, had been working on their own peace initiative by visiting each other’s neighborhoods, conversing, and in time sleeping over. It sounds simple until you understand that their Cité Soleil and Ti Bois neighborhoods are controlled by a network of competing gangs. The gangs can dictate everything, from who comes and goes to commerce, access to food, and even your vote in national elections.
Frequent altercations arise between neighborhoods, and there is always the possibility of violence to maintain or expand a gang’s influence. So when Jean-Claude Duvalier died, a real possibility existed that rival gangs might use the instability for their own gain. It could knock over the first domino in a string of events that could ignite all of Cité Soleil.
I’ll never know why things didn’t unravel that night, but I’m guessing it was due in part to the simple idea of these young peacemakers.
“I sleep in your hood, you sleep in mine, we see that our problems are the same,” explained Alashkar, one of the young founders of what they now call “Ghetto Tourism.” Groups of young people spend time in each other’s neighborhoods, sharing food, stories, and their lives.
The leaders of the gangs must guarantee the safety of the visitors and so turn the youth into negotiators who navigate what is required to create safe passage. Over the years, they have built a trust that can only be created by shared experience.
“It’s connecting people, connecting community,” described Louino, a leader in the community. “It makes them see that if I was eating with you yesterday, there is no way I can have violence with you.”
I was lucky enough to be a part of two sleepovers during our stay. We listened to local musicians, ate flavorful food, and dialogued over violence, friends lost to random street shootings, and the ravages of cholera, HIV, and TB. But we also talked about hope for a better tomorrow, about how slowly, through the maintenance of personal connections, things are getting better, and that one day there will be jobs, more schools, and less fear.
I suppose what the news can’t capture or neglects to acknowledge is the resilience and optimism of the people. The youth I met are in no way naïve. They weather the daily challenges of poverty by using what they have, ask for nothing in this effort, and look forward to a future they themselves can build.
David B. Marshall an Emmy Award-winning producer, director, and editor. He is the founder and director of Blue Sky Project, a not-for-profit media foundation. His films reflect his interest in human rights, social justice, and the power of contextualized history.