Friday, March 2, 2012

Jean Ristil: The People's Journalist of Haiti

RIP Jean Ristil 
December 12, 1981 - February 25, 2012

Jean Ristil: The People's Journalist of Haiti

by Kevin Pina

I'm sure we all  know someone that works tirelessly on behalf of their convictions never caring much about recognition as others around them receive the attention, credibility and accolades. Jean Ristil was exactly that kind of unique soul who cared less about his own recognition than what others were actually doing for his community and his people.  Although Jean Ristil was no stranger to being marginalized by those who felt more entitled, it didn't matter to him because in the end talk was cheap and life was more precious. Growing up and living in Cite Soleil in Haiti, Jean knew never to judge anyone, Haitian or foreigner, by what they said or claimed but by what they actually did for others.

Jean Ristil was a people's journalist, unafraid to take chances to show the world the truth about Haiti and Cite Soleil. During the dark days of repression and murder against Lavalas supporters between 2004-2006, we were part of a team that formed an underground network to collect and distribute information from the grassroots in Haiti to the rest of the world.

Jean Ristil was one of the most courageous people I've ever known. When no one else would dare to report on police raids and indiscriminate killings in neighborhoods like Cite de Dieu, Cite Militaire  and Bel Air, Jean Ristil would pack his camera and run, not walk, to get the photographic evidence. He knew that since the corporate media and human rights organizations had turned a blind eye to Haiti, in the end all the world would ever see was the photographic evidence we provided of the killings.

Jean Ristil also watched my back on countless occasions while I was videotaping massive Lavalas protests during this period where the police would simply start shooting at people randomly to sow terror. When the US Marines or the UN troops moved against him I would intervene and when the Haitian police came against me he would come to my aid sometimes telling them I was a "stupid blan reporter who didn't know any better." I remember one time it was clear that one particular Haitian SWAT officer knew exactly who I was and what I was doing when Jean played the "stupid blan" card. The SWAT cop lifted his black ski mask to look closely at the press badges hanging from our necks then smiled and waved us on saying, "I know who you two are. Get out of here." To this day I like to think there was a begrudging tone of respect in that policeman's response for the loyalty Jean and I regularly showed each other in the field.

Jean Ristil was an organic intellectual with nerves of steel. I remember a conversation Jean and I had in June 2005 one month before the UN massacre he documented in Cite Soleil. We were discussing what to do about the injured and dying shot by the UN and the Haitian police we were confronting on a daily basis. Was it better to help them if we could or to stay detached to document what was going on. It was a painful discussion with both of us changing sides and positions many times. In the end we decided that if we thought we could actually help save a life we would, but that if someone was clearly dying of their wounds we would be honoring them more if we documented their death. Our thinking was that no one would ever know these people in the poor neighborhoods of Haiti had ever lived save for our documenting their deaths for the world. A month later during the UN raid in his community of Cite Soleil on July 6, 2005, Jean would be put to the test. As Leonce Chery lay dying of a single shot to his jaw from a high-powered rifle, Jean stayed with him until the end. It took seven minutes for Leonce to bleed out and die and Jean captured every second of his excruciating death on camera.  Yes, Jean Ristil was a courageous soul who didn't suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome but learned to live with acute traumatic stress in his everyday existence in Cite Soleil. His was a soul and personality of iron.

On September 9, 2005, Jean Ristil would once again jump into the breach. It was already a strange day when I received a frantic phone call from Jean saying that the police were searching Father Gerard Jean-Juste's residence at St. Claire's church in Ti Place Cazeau. Jean-Juste was being held in prison and Jean Ristil was convinced the police were going to try to plant guns in the church to justify his arrest. "Pina, you've got to come now!" he yelled over the telephone. Jean was waiting for me as I arrived and followed me as I jumped a fence and began filming the police searching Jean-Juste's bedroom. A judge accompanied by several large police wearing black ski masks grabbed my arm and tried to take my camera calling me a "White Lavalas Bandit!" I quickly spun to protect my camera yelling "I have the right to film!" as the judge's own momentum sent him flying to the floor in a heap. I yelled to Jean to leave as the police rushed me. The judge, in a screaming and spitting fury, ordered me arrested on the spot. Jean Ristil was out in front of the church videotaping as they escorted me out in handcuffs. Suddenly the judge turns to one of the masked policemen and tells them, "Take this one too. He's with the blan" and now both of us are handcuffed and thrown into the back of a jeep. Jean Ristil spent two days in jail thinking they would keep him longer because he was Haitian and let me go because I had a US passport. When it turned out they let him go a day earlier and the judge ordered me to stay behind bars "until I decide your fate for disrespecting me," Jean Ristil said to me as he left the jail, "Don't worry. You're Haitian now, we'll make sure nothing happens to you."

Kevin Pina and Jean Ristil behind bars in Haiti on September 10, 2005.

For all of his time spent documenting suffering and death, Jean Ristil refused to let it define him. Jean celebrated life in the present and had a clear vision of the life he wanted for the children of Cite Soleil in the future. I remember when Jean Ristil founded the organization Kole Zepòl Sove Ti Moun, Cite Soleil to help orphaned children in his community. Jean said he didn't want foreigners to come in and take the children out of their community to put them on display in their orphanage to raise money for their projects. Neither did he want them to end up as part of the scandalous system of adoption in Haiti that he saw as tantamount to human trafficking. No, Jean Ristil's idea was far simpler and direct. If you really wanted to support Haiti and Cite Soleil than support local families to adopt the orphans in the community. Support them to improve their lives even as they open their arms and hearts to children in their community left parent-less largely due to structural and state-sponsored violence. It was a unique and creative approach that is an example of the way Jean Ristil approached problems in Cite Soleil and in Haiti, with a clear sense of history.

Jean Ristil was that rare person that serves as a bridge between grassroots activism and journalism in the world. Yes, he was truly a people's journalist of Haiti but what others said, or didn't say about his work, never seemed to matter much to Jean Ristil.  In the end, the only thing that seemed to really matter to Jean was what he was going to do next for his community and for Haiti.