When I arrived in Haiti in 1995 to help establish a children's radio station, one of the first people I met was a street child, Papouche. He was up in my arms in moments, chatting away in a language I did not yet understand. Later, I learned he was describing his life during the 1991-94 coup. Papouche had managed to escape the rampant attacks on homeless kids that were common then – and which became rare after a 1994 U.S. invasion restored Jean Bertrand Aristide to power.
But since Aristide's ouster 10 months ago, attacks and killings of street children are back – in record numbers, according to local human rights workers.
In the early 1990s, Papouche, like many of the estimated 200,000 other street children in and around Port-au-Prince, had slept in the national cemetery among looted graves and the freshly dumped bodies of tortured pro-democracy activists. He competed with other boys for car-washing work on busy downtown streets.
Papouche was beaten by storeowners or their private henchmen and almost killed by members of the military, who thought he watched too closely as they dumped the bodies of their victims in a ravine next to the cemetery.
When an outreach team from Lafanmi Selavi – a center for street children founded by President Aristide when he was a parish priest – came to Chans Mas, Papouche was quick to jump in the back of their truck. I met him shortly after he came to the center. Over the next few years he excelled in school, studied photography and painted murals.
Although he wasn't yet 10 years old, Papouche became an advocate for children's rights, occasionally speaking alongside President Aristide and co-hosting a radio show on Radyo Timoun (Children's Radio).
Aristide was the first Haitian leader to initiate the prosecution of adults who mistreat children. He created laws protecting children who worked in sweatshops. From the national palace, often in collaboration with youth like Papouche, Aristide said that children, even street kids, were worthy of respect.
This movement transformed Haitians' attitudes toward children in general, and toward child domestic servants (called restaveks) and street kids in particular. It became unpopular to disrespect or mistreat youth. Random killings and beatings of street kids by storeowners, their lackeys and police dropped dramatically.
Today Papouche is 19 years old, set to graduate from high school and looking toward university. But he still knows many street children.
"These new ones are only 7 or 8 years old," Papouche told me recently. "They grew up under Aristide and don't know what it was like for us." But, Papouche says, "they will now."
According to child welfare workers, the rate of targeted beatings and killings of street children in Haiti has risen some 500 percent since the Feb. 29 ouster of Aristide.
A report released by Amnesty International in November cites the case of a 13-year-old in Martissant, who was kidnapped by police and handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten because they believed he knew the hiding places of armed groups said to be Aristide supporters.
Michael Brewer, a registered nurse from Texas, knows firsthand how street children are being newly targeted. He directs both Haiti Street Kids Inc, which provides medical care, food and support to homeless kids, and Port-au-Prince's Family Circle Boys Home, which provides full-time care for two dozen formerly homeless children.
"Nothing is ever reported, investigated or even mentioned if it is a street kid that has been murdered ... When the body becomes too unpleasant for the residents or vendors in the area, it is usually dumped or set on fire with kerosene. The names of those who are killed are often never known," says Brewer, who regularly checks the morgue and other known dumping sites for bodies.
"We almost always find bodies of street kids between the ages of about 8 and 16, especially now," Brewer says.
Brewer describes carloads of men who are members of the disbanded and now illegally reformed military, who patrol Port-au-Prince and kill street children "for sport."
"These men prowl the streets ... with high-powered military assault rifles, shotguns and 9mm pistols, wearing all-black uniforms with black ski masks over their heads," Brewer says. "They justify the murders of these boys by saying that they are cleaning the streets."
Brewer says he has personally corroborated many accounts of street children who witnessed murders. He describes one incident on Nov. 11 in Plais Bois, a park where many homeless boys sleep, in which a carload of men attacked three children ages seven, 12 and 15.
"The boys were first beaten severely. Black bags were then put over their heads and tied around their necks, and then they were shot and killed." Witnesses say that the bodies were taken away in a car trunk.
Children's advocates agree that the murders are committed by police, members of the death squads and the former military, as well as by the hired guns of the wealthy elites.
"I only saw three murdered (homeless) children between 1995 and the beginning of 2004," says one missionary who works with homeless children and asked that her name not be used. "Since Feb. 29, I have seen or heard of over 150 murders of street children and have personally witnessed the attacks on more than a dozen occasions."
From his home in the Plais Bois Park, 10-year-old TiLulou points at bloodstains on the concrete ground. "That's where my cousin was killed," he says. "The men in masks killed him. They have no heart for the street children and they want us to die."
I ask TiLulou if he is afraid to sleep at the park where so many of his friends have been killed. "No, I am tired, too tired to be afraid. I am too tired to cry. I just want a place to sleep and food in my stomach," he says.
Growing up in a single parent home I had my share of fast food. Breakfast was a run through the McDonald's drive thru for the Big Breakfast or an egg mcmuffin, hold the ham. After moving to San Francisco during high school, the definition of "fast food" changed to Noah's bagels, a grilled chicken burrito from the local taqueria, or -- in moments of sheer desperation -- a blueberry powerbar washed down with an carrot and orange odwalla from my neighborhood corner store.
A recent drive to the South Bay reminded me of the existence of "real" fast food that most people eat. So I decided that, in order to get in touch with my suburban roots, a day of noshing some greasy burgers and fries was in order.
I started my day at McDonald's which probably is the restaurant that best explemplifies American fast food. McD's has moved beyond the standard "bacon egg and cheese biscut" to more sophisticated breakfast fare. I shelled out two and a half dollars for the steak bagel which featured "juicy steak and sautated onions." This was probably the chewist bagel I have ever had. By chewy, I don't mean soft and chewy like a good new york bagel, I mean, this was like a year old Lender's bagel, straight from the freezer, but worse. The steak was, well, similar to cafateria meat in a greasy gravy kind of a way. I tossed it and decided to try the Spanish Omlet bagel with "green peppers, onions and savory sausage." This was actually a bit more palatible and left me, as any good fast food meal should, feeling bloated and greasy.
I wasn't hungry for more, but had to try one more breakfast item before heading out to work. Anything with a name like "Fresh Fruit Yogurt Parfait" just screams to be eaten. For two dollars and nineteen cents I expected the fruit to actually be fresh. Instead I got plain yogurt sandwiching some frozen fruit topping (the kind you get on ice cream) spinkled with granola. The exact same item could have been purchased at safeway for 79 cents. But I guess if you're hanging with your friends, and McDonald's is the place to go, this is a good alternative for the dieting crowd (unless you're on the Atkins diet, in which case, hold the granola).
By 11 I was hungry and anxious to try some new culinary delight at my next stop: a Taco Bell and KFC combined. One bought out the other and now you can have combination lunches like two chicken strips and two tacos with a drink for $3.89. I grabbed a friend and we planted ourselves at a filthy booth with our tray of artery-clogging food and a cup of ice cold Storm to wash it down with. Taco Bell's newest feature is the chlupas, a fried version of the gorditas (basically it's a soft taco with a really super thick tortilla). The chlupas is a gordita that is fried and then baked giving it a custy shell.
While McDonald's has new food that calls out to the healthy and more sophesticated side of people; KFC and taco bell are trying to appeal to our desire for texture and excitement in our food. All of their new food items are either very crunchy, or very spicy, or very different. KFC was promoting their new line of chicken sandwhiches which "feature delicious split top buns from Peperidge Farms." Ranging from 2.29 to 2.99 they came in a variety of differnt styles including roasted, triple crunch, original, and honey bar-b-que.
The Taco Bell side of the restaurant was promoting wild chlupas in such flavors as the Supreme ("cool sour cream and ripe tomatoes"), the Santa Fe ("spicy sauce and southern salsa"), and the Baja ("zesty pepper jack sauce and freshly prepared salsa"). We settled for the Baja Chlupas and a Triple Crunch sandwhich.
The triple crunch was so named because its main ingredient is three strips of very fried chicken (this chicken was just about fried to death!) between the split top bun with some sort of neon orange colored sauce that tasted like a sour version of thousand island dressing. The bun actually was quite good, and the tomatoes were fresh. The lettuce was limp, but hey, who's complaining? All in all, it was okay, ranking five on a scale of one to ten.
The Baja chulpa came next. A thick fried tortilla stuffed with ground beef, lettuce, salsa, and cheese it was drenched is a yellow-orange mayonaise like sauce that had a definate bite (must be that pepper jack!). This actually was very good, something I think I might eat again sometime. It was fresh, not too greasy (despite being fried), and had an interesting taste.
I rushed back to work but not before picking up desert, a "real rasberry milkshake" for 1.99. Jack in the Box has a bad reputation (How many people actually call it by it's real name, rather than Jack in the Crack?); based on a rash of E-Coli deaths a number of years ago that were caused by hamburger patties cooked at low tempatures. For those two hesitatant to go for a burger and fries, Jack in the Box has a wide selection of non-beef based food items. Everything from egg rolls, to "monster tacos", to Chicken fajita pita, to fish and chips is represented. Frankly, if I'm going to have egg rolls or tacos I would prefer to go to a chinese restaurant or to a mission district taqueria, respectively. But anyway, I was tempted to get the cappachino milkshake but went for the rasberry instead and was pleasently surprised. Although a bit sweet for my taste, this shake was made with real berry (as evidenced by the fact that it included real seeds).
I tooled on back to work and, when dinner time came around, took off for my last and final fast food foray of the day: Wendy's. The special sandwhich being promoted right now is the Monteray Ranch Chicken, a deep fried patty with some kind of a sauce (tarter sauce with ranch dressing?) topped with montery jack cheese. For 3.39 it's a bit on the pricey side for what you get. After eating that I was still hungry so I decided to try one of the pita sanwhiches. With such appitizing choices as "garden vegetable" (1.99), "ranch chicken" (3.49), and "chicken ceaser" (3.49) it was a hard choice but I finally settled on the Classic Greek Pita. Filled with salad, chicken, and topped with tomatos and feta cheese, this sandwhich was true to it's name, it was classic greek fare (it even had cucumbers). The pita was a little on the stale side but I polished it off with Dr. Pepper.
I rushed home to catch the Simpsons but on my way home, seeing an advertisement for McD's salad shakers, I realized that my fast food day was not yet over. The concept of salad shakers is a noble one, attempted to solve the problem of "how do we toss a salad so that every leaf is covered with dressing when we have no mixing bowl and we're eatting in our car on the freeway?". I was handed a big plastic glass with a top on it that looked suspiciously like an oversized version of the ice cream sundae containers (so, like how did they come up with this idea?). But alas, the salad was packed so tightly inside and the container so full that there was no room to shake the salad after adding the dressing. I solved the problem by going inside and requesting a plate (which they didn't have. A restaurant with no plates??). Instead I took two burger wrapping papers, dumped out have the salad, shook it with the dressing, poured it out on the second paper, put the other salad in, did the same thing, and then mixed it together. My chicken ceaser salad was pretty fresh, with that distinctive "bagged lettuce" taste but with a fair amount of chicken and a lot of grated cheese. This is something that I would order should I ever find myself at McDonald's again.
So, my excuration into American fast food complete, I've realized that there actually is some decent fast food. It's no real substitute for a good taqueria or other ethnic restaurant, but it's no longer all burgers and fries anymore either.
With black marker in hand, piercing artist Daniel Barrak draws small, even lines on fifteen-year-old Danya's left nipple. The Tel Aviv high school student is in Barrak's small tattoo studio off Ben Yuhuda street getting her fourth piercing in the past year. Along with a nose ring and a pierced tongue, Danya sports a purple safety pin in her right eyebrow - a piercing she did with the help of her boyfriend at home.
"I like to be different," Danya explains. "This is my way of expressing myself. It's a way of decorating my body that expresses who I am."
Danya is one of the dozen or so teens who come to Barrak for piercing each week. Most want ear or nose piercings, although a few prefer to have their belly button or genitals pierced. Though piercing has been popular in the US for years, it has only recently become widespread in Israel, a country where the state is closely connected with religious law (Jewish religious law prohibits piercings because of interpretations of the Torah.)
Officials at the Ministry of Health have no estimate for the number of minors who have body piercings. Barrak thinks that about 5,000 piercings are done each year. Recently, teens are interested in having multiple piercings, or piercing unusual parts of their bodies, such as the area underneath their bottom lip or between their nostrils.
"A couple of years ago, everyone had their nose pierced," Danya said. "But now everyone has their belly button or tongue pierced. They are looking for something new. A nipple or an eyebrow isn't extreme enough."
As her boyfriend and two other friends stand by, one with a camera in hand (snapping photos of the whole process), Barrak unwraps a new 10-gauge needle from its wax paper casing. "Just hurry up, hurry up," Danya squirms. "Why are you taking so long?"
Her friends, standing on either side, calm her and grasp her hands as Barrak quickly drives the needle through her nipple, pulling it out and replacing it with the silver ring that Danya chose earlier. "Ow, ow, ow! Is it over? Are you done?" Barrak has her lie down and gives her a short lecture about how to clean and care for her new piercing.
After paying 120 NIS (about $45), Danya and her friends settle around a table at a nearby McDonalds to explain why the younger generation of Israeli's secular youth are so crazy about piercing.
"Piercing is a form of body art," says Channah, Danya's 17-year-old classmate who came along to photograph her friend's nipple piercing experience. "We are saying through this art that we are the anti-culture, we reject everything about how the culture demands us to be."
For Miedad, Danya's 22-year-old boyfriend, piercing is less about making a statement and more about pain. "Body manipulation expands your mind because we have fear of pain. So we avoid anything we think will hurt. But when you willingly subject yourself to pain, you can learn to enjoy the pain. That is liberation."
Danya explains that many piercing-prone Israeli youth consider themselves "Modern Primitives," a social and cultural movement that embraces scarification, branding, and S&M. "When you transcend the pain, you find out that you aren't limited by this physical world."
Philosophy of pain and piercing aside, how does this particular form of body art play out in their lives?
"Most people think this is really extreme," Danya explains. "But I don't think I will have any serious drawbacks unless I got an infection or something."
Miedad adds, "Some people might discriminate against you because of your piercings. When I was in the army, they would prohibit wearing nose rings and people who had them had to take them out and then the hole closed up. But the type of person who would discriminate against you because you have a piercing would not want someone like me to work for them anyway. They would think I'm too mushuggie (crazy)."
And what do parents say about their teens coming home with piercings?
My mother didn't say anything," Channah replied. "My father didn't say anything either although I heard them discussing it. They just think I decided to do this because I'm young but I know that when I'm older I will still want to have these," Channah lifts her shirt to display the bar through her nipple and the ring in her navel.
Danya smiles. "After I pierced my tongue, my mother said, 'How can you even eat with that in your mouth all the time?' I couldn't eat the first few days. We were having dinner and food kept falling out of my mouth. My parents were annoyed and told me if I couldn't keep my food in my mouth I had to go eat in the other room."
Channah and Miedad laugh and after a few more tongue piercing anecdotes, the conversation turns to the more serious subject of the Ministry of Health and their recent calls for a government crackdown on teen piercings.
Danya gestures to her chest. "This is my body and I should have my rights to do what I want with my body. I don't want anyone telling me I'm not old enough to do this."
Channah agrees. "No one ever asks us for our identity card and if they refused to let us have a piercing, we would just do it ourselves. That could be dangerous because some younger children would not know what they were doing and could hurt themselves."
Recent calls by the community leaders have led the Ministry of Health to look into the situation of minors getting piercings. Although more upscale piercing studios, such as Jerusalem's Bizzart on Hillel Street, refuse to pierce minors in some areas of the body (tongue, navel, genitals) without parental permission, most hole-in-the-wall shops simply ask the teen if their parents think this is okay.
"One place wanted a note from my parents before they would do it [pierce me]," Miedad relates. "So I just wrote a note and signed my father's name. How were they going to know what his signature looked like?"
Currently, the Ministry of Health has no laws in place to regulate piercing studios. The only laws effecting such establishments are the routine hygiene regulations designed for establishments such as hair stylists or mainstream ear-piercing shops.
"We hope to have a completed set of regulations with the year," Dr. Yitzhak Berlovich of the Ministry of Health stated. "These regulations will help us address problems such as infections, the spread of disease and the possible contraction of the HIV virus."
Not using gloves or properly sterilized needles can lead to severe infections, Barrak explains. "We use brand new needles, straight out of the package. But not all people do that. Some places sterilize the needle and use it again. If it's not done properly, the person can get a blood infection and it can be serious, even fatal."
In addition to looking at the issue of hygiene, some community leaders have proposed that the Ministry of Health prohibit youth from getting pierced without their parent's consent. There are currently no laws addressing whether teens can get piercings without parental consent. "These are mostly teenagers and the challenge is to control what they have access to and what they are prohibited from. Without cooperation from the businesses, it is very difficult to control what happens." Berlovich said. "But it is better to focus on educating the teenagers about some of the dangers of piercings."