GONAIVES, Haiti — The U.S. will keep troops in Haiti through September to work alongside Argentine peacekeepers in a volatile part of the country where tens of thousands fled to after January’s earthquake.

Joint Task Force Haiti commander Lt. Gen. Ken Keen said Wednesday that as many as 500 personnel at a time will be deployed to Haiti from June through September to do humanitarian assistance and medical projects, mostly in the town of Gonaives, a mid-sized city between Port-au-Prince and the country’s north coast. Currently, about 4,300 troops are on the ground with another 2,300 on Navy vessels off the coast.

The goal of the mission, which will fall under the military liaison section at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti once the joint task force stands down, is to provide services that will help convince people displaced by the earthquake to stay in Gonaives, he said.

An estimated 600,000 people fled Port-au-Prince after their homes collapsed, Keen said, adding that most have been absorbed into other communities without the creation of the sort of tent cities found in the capital.

“There is a family structure in Haiti and they have taken care of their own to a great degree,” he said. “A family of five [in an area outside the capital] may now have 15 people living in their home.”

The goal of the Haitian government and the United Nations is to dissuade those who have left the capital from returning, something that could make matters worse in a town that is struggling to find safe areas for earthquake survivors’ camps.

“If 600,000 people returned to Port-au-Prince, that would double the problems there,” Keen said.

U.S. Coast Guard Commander David Strong, 42, of Stafford, Va., the military liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, said the humanitarian assistance work in Gonaives will focus on engineering projects.

“We have $2 million for humanitarian assistance programs that engineers will use to buy materials for school building,” he said.

On Wednesday morning, Keen and a group of his officers flew to Gonaives to meet community leaders and the commander of an Argentine battalion working there under the U.N.

Col. Nestor D’Amera, the Argentine commander, said his troops work in Artibonite — the Haitian area surrounding Gonaives that is home to 1.2 million people, four out of five of whom live in poverty. The population of Gonaives: 350,000 people before the earthquake, now stands at close to half a million, he said.

“People are agitated,” he said. “The town is quiet but it could explode at any time.”

In recent weeks, the security forces working in the area have caught 30 criminals who escaped from the prison in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake but there are still attacks on trucks delivering aid to the region, he said.

Despite the potential for unrest, the streets of Gonaives were quiet on the day the Americans visited with people selling produce on the roadside and uniformed children attending schools.

Keen’s next meeting was with Haitian community leaders in Gonaives.

“We are here to support people who left Port-au-Prince,” Keen told the leaders, who included health and education officials. “We are looking at how we might contribute to your community that is trying to take care of the large number of Haitians who have come here.”

The U.S. military is looking at providing medical care and overseeing school construction to provide space for the extra students, Keen said.

“These projects would be targeted ... in particular towards the increase in population ... but they need to be what you want, not what we think you need,” he told the Haitians.

The leaders told Keen 30,000 students recently arrived in Gonaives from Port-au-Prince. Two-thirds of them are already in school and work is underway to provide schools for the rest, they said.

One local leader asked if the U.S. projects would employ Haitians.

“The most important thing is to create jobs for these people so they stay here and don’t go back to Port-au-Prince,” he said.

Keen said locals will be hired for much of the work but that it won’t be enough to provide jobs for the large number of new workers in Gonaives.

As the U.S. prepares for the new mission in the city, a drawdown of the forces that deployed to Haiti continues.

“We have a transition plan not based on dates but based on conditions going forward and our ability to turn over what we have been doing to the U.N., [nongovernmental organizations] and the Haitian government,” Keen said, adding that the U.S. military will keep an enhanced presence in Haiti long after the task force stands down.

“Our involvement when you look at engineering projects and the oversight of engineering projects is much greater than it was before the earthquake,” he said. “We didn’t have any engineers here before. Now there will be five to 10 assigned to the military liaison officer here to help oversee these ongoing projects.”

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now