Then, on Oct. 25, a friend in Port-au-Prince sent me a link to a post on an epidemiology blog. It was titled: "Nepal: Cholera Outbreak in Kathmandu." The post linked to an article from the previous month in the Himalayan Times. Although Nepal is a cholera-endemic country -- the disease is always present -- there had been recent flare-ups. Doctors at a Katmandu hospital had warned that an outbreak was under way.
The U.N. soldiers stationed along the Artibonite River were from Nepal.
The next day, a U.N. press release arrived in my inbox. It was composed in the ultraformal diplomatic French of all U.N. memos in Haiti, but I could imagine it read in the bouncy Dominican-Italian lilt of its sender, Vincenzo Pugliese. The MINUSTAH press office was in flux -- the last spokesman off to Darfur and the new spokeswoman not yet arrived -- leaving Pugliese, the deputy, in charge. A teddy bear-shaped man with a receding hairline of brown, closely clipped hair, he talked with high animation and amiability that seldom concealed his disdain for the press.
The note made a series of claims: that the Nepalese base had "seven septic tanks" built to "construction standards of the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency," emptied "every week by four trucks from a private contractor." They were "250 meters from the river … representing more than 20 times the distance required at the international level." The management of the waste was "consistent with established international standards."
It was a lousy attempt at damage control -- acknowledging the rumors and backing them up with a list of claims anyone could prove or disprove simply by heading to the base.
The village of Meille is a collection of concrete houses and thatch shacks thinly spread alongside National Road No. 3. The homes stretch out over the rolling knobs of earth along the road, peeking out through the trees. The U.N., meanwhile, built its base there to be seen. In a clearing, wedged between the highway and the Meille River, the soldiers had installed a high white gate and a series of even higher watchtowers surrounded by walls topped with concertina wire. The gate read:
Young men from the village were standing in front of the gate wearing backpacks and ball caps. Evens greeted them, approaching with open arms. "We heard someone dumped kaka in the river. Know anything about that?"
"Can you show us where?"
At once they turned and walked toward the base. We followed. Nepalese soldiers in green-and-brown camouflage and sky-blue helmets watched us from a guard tower. Just before the gate, the young men turned right and walked toward the back of the base, where only a steep, narrow slope of mud and rock separated the compound from the river. As we neared, they covered their noses and mouths. A second later, I realized why. The stench of rotting human filth was debilitating. We held our breath and crossed a concrete embankment along the ridge. Standing at the end was a U.N. solider with a blond ponytail sticking out of her blue cap, a Guatemalan flag on her epaulet. At her feet was a thick-sided black plastic case topped with security clasps.