The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
Sinister figures could intensify Haiti rebellion
Lydia Polgreen NYT
Monday, February 16, 2004
GONAIVES, Haiti When Roselene Guillaume saw her husband's bullet-riddled body, she did not need to be told what to do. She packed up the few rags of clothing that her three sets of twins, ages 2 to 6, could carry and sent them with her aunt north on foot to a village 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, away.
She wanted them out of this city, the center of a violent uprising aimed at overthrowing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that threatens to plunge the country into chaos.
But Guillaume, 20, her belly swollen with her seventh child, refused to go with them. She would not leave the body of her husband, Chaolin, who was killed, she said, by pro-Aristide militants as he tried to make his way home here during the uprising.
"I have to bury my husband here, in his home, where Aristide killed him," Guillaume said, her eyes vacant as she stared into a street carpeted with ash and broken glass. "But we are very afraid."
Political strife has gripped the country since a disputed parliamentary election in 2000, and huge opposition marches over the past several months have intensified calls for Aristide to leave office. Early this month, the crisis boiled over into violence as armed rebel groups attacked police stations in as many as a dozen cities across the country. More than 40 people have died.
In Gonaïves (pronounced goh-nah-EEV), an opposition force wrested control from the police on Feb. 5. Fear and chaos have become a way of life in this town, a critical crossroads in Haiti's revolutionary heartland between the country's two largest cities, Port-au-Prince, the capital, and Cap-Haïtien.
In recent days, the leader of the uprising here has indicated that he has the support of sinister figures from this country's violent past.
It is unclear whether this support will actually materialize. But that possibility, coupled with the government's weak and disorganized security arrangements, could take the conflict to another level, experts say. Until now, it has been limited to uprisings by small armed groups in the cities.
The rebel group in Gonaïves calls itself the Artibonite Resistance Front, a more palatable name than the Cannibal Army, as it was formerly known. At this point, it appears not to have massed enough militants to take on the police and pro-Aristide militants in other major cities. Yet with only a small police force and militant gangs that sometimes serve as an auxiliary government force, Aristide does not appear to have enough manpower to take Gonaïves by force, though government officials have said a plan to do just that is in the works. As a result, Gonaïves is likely to simmer in its current misery for some time.
The man who has placed himself in charge of this city in an effort to force Aristide from office is Butteur Métayer. His brother, Amiot, once led a pro-government gang, but they switched sides last fall after Amiot Métayer was killed, and they accused the government of the killing.
On Feb. 5, the group repelled the police here, and Butteur Métayer declared from behind his customary dark glasses that the city had been liberated.
"We have freed Gonaïves," Métayer said at an impromptu news conference in a ramshackle schoolhouse at the edge of the seaside slum that is his base.
"We have a plan to take St. Marc," he continued, the smell of rum heavy on his breath, referring to the port city 30 kilometers south of here that rebel groups and government forces started battling over more than a week ago. "Then we will march to the capital. And there is only one goal when we get to the capital: the palace."
Métayer refused to say how many men he commands, but he contended that reinforcements had arrived from the Dominican Republic, led by two men feared for their sinister roles in the army and the police force in the past.
One, Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former soldier who led death squads in the late 1980s and was accused of committing atrocities after a 1991 military coup, is gathering a force of men, Métayer said. The other, Guy Philippe, a former police chief whom the government accused of trying to overthrow it 2002, is also on the ground near Gonaïves, he said.
"This is beginning to shape up to what I call an unholy alliance," said Robert Maguire, an expert on Haitian politics at Trinity College in Washington who is on cordial terms with Aristide. "You now have the real possibility of civil war, and you have a government that is facing depleted capacity to resist this because of the weakness of the police force."
With a demoralized police force of fewer than 5,000 men, Aristide has struggled to hold onto power and has relied heavily on armed gangs loyal to him to retain control of the country in places where the police have been unable or unwilling to do so. The weakness of the police and the violence of the street gangs have diplomats here concerned that all order could break down very quickly.
"The police could melt away, and he could unleash the Chimères," said a senior Western diplomat in Port-au-Prince, using the Haitian name for pro-government gang members. "The government is more and more dependent on gangs. It is a very fragile situation."
The armed uprising more than a week ago in this important seaside city choked off a crucial north-south highway that links Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien and has transformed Gonaïves into a bubbling cauldron of misery. Thousands of the city's 200,000 residents have fled.
With the road blocked by machine-gun wielding rebels, the price of rice, the staple food here, has doubled.
Children fish gasoline from the underground tank below a bombed-out Esso station with tin cans attached to wires, selling it for as much as $20 a gallon, about $5.30 a liter. Burned car chassis and all manner of trash - baby carriages, tires and bed frames - block roads in the city.
The hospital's bullet-riddled gates are open, but its wooden doors are shut tight. The Cuban doctors who normally staff it are afraid to show up for work, hospital workers said. International aid agencies said they could not safely bring supplies to the city.
But it is a measure of the misery of life in Haiti even under the best circumstances that people here say things were not much better when the government was in control.
"Even before now we had no food, no money," said Dieuline Ménard, 17, a student who has not been to school in months because of the chaos gripping the city. "If Aristide stays or goes, we still will not eat." International aid agencies warn that they were struggling to get food to more than a quarter-million people who rely on them in the country's arid north. There, in the areas around Cap-Haïtien, farmers struggle to coax crops from rocky bits of land between barren mountains.
Further instability could force the number of people needing food to as many as 800,000, according to Guy Gavreau, country representative for the World Food Program, which plans to send a barge loaded with rice to Cap-Haïtien to feed schoolchildren and pregnant mothers in the countryside.
"These people are entirely dependent on food aid," Gavreau said. "They are extremely vulnerable."
Opposition civic groups in Port-au-Prince have tried to distance themselves from the violent uprisings, particularly the one in Gonaïves. But the government has been equally forceful in asserting that the groups are connected.
In a news conference last week, Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said the rebel group in Gonaïves was "a group of terrorists linked to the opposition," and that the city's population "has been taken hostage by an armed group."
Jean-Claude Bajeux, a former member of Aristede's cabinet and a longtime human rights advocate in Port-au-Prince who now supports the opposition, said the uprising in Gonaïves consisted largely of former Aristide supporters who said they received their weapons from Aristide with instructions to control and intimidate opposition civic groups there.
"Power that has fallen into delinquency wants to have its own law," Bajeux said. "It is for that reason that Aristide lies and kills."
Indeed, the current crisis is in many ways one of Aristide's own making, a senior Western diplomat in Port-au-Prince said.
By arming the rebel groups and by appointing political cronies to the country's police force, rather than professional managers, the diplomat said, Aristide weakened the only legitimate defense he had.
In Gonaïves on Saturday, Métayer, the leader of the local uprising, said much the same. "We are fighting Aristide with the weapons he gave us," Métayer said. "He gave us guns to stop the opposition, but now we oppose him."
The New York Times