Paramaribo, SURINAME – Suriname, a country in South America near the equator, is suffering from political and economic crises.
Until its independence in 1975, Suriname was a Dutch colony. In part because of its colonial history, Suriname is a big multicultural society.
I had the chance to live and work in Suriname for five months. As a Dutch citizen, I learned about Suriname in school, but I found out much more by living there. It’s a diverse country with one major city. The people are kind and the culture is relaxed. No one is in a hurry and everyone has time to talk. Most people seem to be happy.
Usually Suriname is a quiet haven of easy going people, but not on February 17 this year, when there were big demonstrations that shocked everyone.
Protestors stormed the Nationale Assemblée, which is the heart of the democracy here. Like protesters did before in Washington, DC and Brazilia, protesters stormed the building and did some serious damage. Nothing like this had ever happened before in Suriname.
Every person I spoke with in Suriname had something to say about what happened that day and the challenges facing the country. The pictures here, together with their stories, will give you a look inside this crisis. The information included here comes from the people I photographed and other regular citizens of Suriname who told me about their country.
A look back
Suriname has an interesting history. Some people say independence came too early and the young country did not have a chance to fully build. Corruption and self-enrichment of the political leaders was common in the early years.
Desi Bouterse, a former army official who had been president for the previous decade and left the country’s finances in shambles.
Bouterse was a prominent army official in the ‘80s and held the presidency for a decade, leaving office in 2020. This year, he was convicted for his part in the so-called “December killings” of 15 of his political opponents in 1982, an act that did not prevent him from becoming president of Suriname in 2010.
Chan Santokhi took over as president after Bouterse, making campaign promises. But in an exchange with youth broadcast on Dutch television, Santokhi faced questions about his vow to fulfill his election promises in the first 200 days and about appointing family members to well paid, important positions. He evaded most of the questions.
When I arrived in Suriname in November, the exchange rate was 28 Suriname dollars for 1 euro. Today, the rate is 40 Suriname dollars for one euro.
Sadly, earnings don’t match those rates. It is very hard to make ends meet. There is no more middle class in Suriname. The average monthly income is only about $200 U.S. dollars a month. With everything getting more expensive, people cannot pay for everyday groceries, their rent or even public transportation.
Worst of all, Suriname does not have any short-term prospects for change. There will be a new presidential election, but not for two years. The big question is if the people will be able to vote for a new, non-corrupt president who can actually make a change for all these people with empty wallets.
For more than 10 years, the man in the photo above has been working at the exact same spot. He sits behind a small table at the side of the road in the middle of the city center. Seven days a week he works there.
The only thing he sees in his future is higher prices. He said he doesn’t know how long he can keep doing his job. Still, he is smiling.
The Surinamese bus system is a private system. This man owns his own bus.
He works at least 10 hours a day, but usually he only makes two trips a day. The rest of the time he is waiting around in the parking lot. The simple fact is there are too many bus drivers.
The prices for bus tickets had risen again and people couldn’t afford to pay for it anymore. Gas prices have gone up, too.
No money for farmers and fishers
This is the central market of Paramaribo. In March, half of it was empty.
People working there complained about the risks of planting and selling their own food.
They don’t want to raise their prices, but they have no other option to keep it profitable.
The woman in the photo sells fish on the market.
It’s a risk for her and other people in agriculture and fisheries, as the government doesn’t support them at all. Their income is what they sell on a daily basis.
If, for instance, due to a big flood, the harvest fails or if something’s wrong with the load of fish, they have a really big personal problem and nobody around to help them out.
Kids at the worksite
For these two young girls, dancing in the streets of Paramaribo is the favorite thing to do.
They dance after they finish school for the day and during the weekends, too.
Their mothers work nearby, on the corner of the street selling food. Nobody has money for daycare, so lots of children spend their afternoons with their parents at their jobs.
This picture below of a boy eating ice cream in front of his father’s shop tells the same story as the one before.
Historic buildings falling apart
The image below is a really common sight in Paramaribo. A poorly maintained, very old building next to a perfectly fine one.
The old building is historic and part of the cultural heritage, and repairs must meet certain standards.
Unfortunately, neither private companies nor the state have the money to do that.
These houses in the photo above were probably never finished. It is most likely that private companies started building them, but in the meantime the prices got so high that the clients couldn’t pay for it anymore.
That’s why the city of Paramaribo is full of unfinished projects.
During the protests on the 17th of February, 2023, the police failed to keep order.
Despite the threats of the situation getting out of hand, there weren’t enough police officers on the streets which resulted in the protesters ruining lots of shops, petrol stations and even the biggest political building, The Assemblee.
The protest shown in the photo happened a month later. The protest, which asked for a total shutdown, was called “Everything Flat.”
Everyone was scared of what could happen and in the end, the city turned into a ghost town for an entire day. There were more reporters and military in the city than protestors.
A small group of protesters showed up at the ‘Everything Flat’ protest on the 24th of March.
They yelled things to the police like: “Why are you standing there blocking our way to the political building when you can also stand at our side?”
To me, a white reporter, they yelled: “Why can she be on the good side of the fence while we stay behind bars?”
The writing on the umbrella says, “Our Children are hungry.”
It’s a sad message, but unfortunately is – or is about to be – the truth, for the poorer Surinamese population.
Anne van Mill is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.
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