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5 septembre 2004

- Alva James-Johnson

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti · The conversation started routinely at United Nations headquarters, where workers scurried about as part of the stabilization mission in Haiti.

Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, chief of communications and public information, eloquently explained how well things were going six months after the crisis that led to the departure of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

« There’s no civil war, » he said. « The overall security has improved compared to the situation back in February. You don’t see armed groups in the streets shooting each other. »

Suddenly news broke that armed ex-military officers were surrounding the Hotel Montana, one of Haiti’s most luxurious hotels. A hush fell over the room as U.N. workers received a solemn warning to be careful on their way home.

In the end, the situation was resolved without incident. The self-proclaimed commander of the former military group said later that he had been at the hotel to meet a U.N. official, and had taken his security detail with him. But it was enough to make Kongo-Doudou and other U.N. officials, some of whom live at the Montana, nervous.

« This is becoming too much, » Kongo-Doudou said. « Last Sunday, they (demonstrated) not far from the National Palace. »

Haiti remains a tinderbox, with the potential to explode at any moment. U.N. officials overseeing the stabilization mission have identified security as the country’s top priority. Yet, efforts to disarm the population have made little progress, leaving the impoverished nation in a fragile state of uncertainty.

Ex-military soldiers roam the streets as vigilantes, decked in camouflage green and armed with weapons. Just as dangerous are angry Aristide loyalists, called chimeres who last week set fire to tires in their slum neighborhoods and shot at unwelcome vehicles to protest a soccer match between Haiti and Brazil.

The Haitian National Police, meanwhile, remains tangled in a power struggle with both armed groups, while still under-resourced and overworked.

« At any moment there could be a very big and dangerous conflict which could have grave consequences, » said Joseph Maxime Rony, coordinator general of the Platform of Haitian Organization for Human Rights.

Interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue of Boca Raton said security is a problem in Haiti, as it is all over the world.

He said the government established a disarmament commission last week and is working with the U.N. to address the issue by negotiating with the armed groups and giving them jobs — an approach that has proven successful in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

« It’s only if those two steps fail (that) we will look into a more serious approach to disarmament, » he said. « But we hope to succeed through negotiation and through facilitating their insertion into the economic life of the country. »

Latortue, whose government is laying the groundwork for the country’s 2005 elections, said jobs would be created by road and other construction projects, paid for with the $1.8 billion that the international community is pouring into the country. He said if the U.S. Congress passes a bill called the Haitian Economic Recovery and Opportunity Act, another 20,000 to 30,000 jobs would be created in the textile industry during the next two years. And many jobs will go to people now living in slums.

« That means we bring them electricity. We bring them schools. We bring them hospitals and make them believe they are Haitians like any other Haitians, » he said. « And the day they reach that conviction, you will see security will no longer be an issue. »

The United Nations launched its multi-national stabilization mission June 1, replacing the U.S.-led interim force that had been in the country since Aristide’s February departure. The Brazilian-led mission calls for 6,700 troops and 1,622 civilian police.

Last month, 2,700 troops and 365 civilian police were in the country, mostly from Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Custodio Adilio, the officer in charge of the U.N. civilian police, said the numbers would increase as more countries deploy their troops to the country. « We’re hoping by the end of December we will be up to full capacity, » he said. « But if things happen in the countries providing help, that could change. »

Kongo-Doudou said the civilian police have been helping the Haitian National Police with training and recruitment.

« We’re not occupying forces, » he said. « We came here to give support to the national police. »

Latortue said the country’s police force has about 3,000 officers, serving a population of 8.5 million people.

Dangerous work

At a police station in Downtown Port-au-Prince, Commander Jacques Ader said he’s been using S.W.A.T. tactics to go after armed gangs. Two of his informants had been killed during the past two weeks. He said the department is under-funded and morale is low but things are improving.

« We are making progress, » he said. « The degree of criminality has gone down since I’ve been here. »

But many said they still feel unsafe.

Dr. Francois Recourt Dennery, an ophthalmologist who marched in opposition of the Aristide regime, said the country still has a lot of shootings, kidnappings, thefts and rapes.

On Monday, gunmen opened fire on a hospital in Cite Soleil with Renaud Muselier, the No. 2 official in the French Foreign Ministry, inside. Muselier was on a visit to boost cooperation between Haiti and its former colonial ruler. The shooting erupted as about 100 men from the neighborhood surrounded the hospital. One gunman was killed and two people wounded.

« We need more security, that’s the biggest thing, » Dennery said. « I’m frustrated because things are going so slowly, but I just have to wait. »

Promoting peace

Last month, the Haitian interim government, with the help of the U.N., tried to promote peace via the Haiti-Brazil soccer match. Initial plans for thousands of rebels to hand over guns in exchange for tickets were abandoned when it became apparent that it was too risky a venture.

« We realized it was impractical, » Latortue said. « You cannot have people coming with guns or you will have a lot of former thugs at the game. We preferred to have children and to have peace. »

Still, the game went on with a visit from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Soccer Superstar Ronaldo and his teammates. Tens of thousands of people swarmed the stadium to witness the event, with the ubiquitous U.N. troops, dressed in camouflage green and sky blue headgear, controlling the crowd.

The soccer players rode to the stadium in armored vehicles, as a U.N. helicopter roared overhead. The match was played in the newly renovated national soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince. Lorrol Maurival was one of many who stood outside of the National Palace to witness the arrival of the Brazilian President.

« Its good for peace and good for soccer, » he said. « It gives a good image of our country, and people overseas are watching. »

Herve Charlotin, 38, said he would like to see Haitians unite.

« It’s time for all the disorder to stop, » he said. « Haiti is perishing. Now is not the time for people to be Lavalas or convergence. These parties need to come together and develop a plan for Haiti. »

But in slum areas like Bel Air, where residents still remain loyal to Aristide, the game only fueled anger. As billows of smoke from burning tires ascended, members of a nearby Wesleyan congregation fasted and prayed for deliverance. Strains of « Jesus Save Me » floated in Creole through an open window, as a crowd of angry members of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party demanded the return of their leader.

« We don’t need Brazil here. We want Aristide, » said Fritz Pierre, a 42-year-old Bel Air resident. « Aristide is the only one capable of leading the country. We’re ready to be on our feet until the President returns. »

Members of the ex-military, who led the armed rebellion against Aristide, are just as determined. On the day that some appeared at the Hotel Montana, U.N. armored vehicles were immediately dispatched, but when they arrived the group of 15 armed men were already departing to an affluent residential neighborhood in Petionville.

Adilio said the civilian police division of the U.N. had invited the group’s commander, Remissainthe Ravix, to the hotel to build a bridge for peace negotiations. During the meeting, the civilian police were unaware that Ravix had brought his armed contingent, he said.

U.N. security guards who protect dignitaries at the hotel became alarmed and called other U.N. security forces to the scene. By the time they arrived the meeting was over.

« The problem is that Sgt. Ravix feels threatened and that’s why he brings his men and has them armed all the time, » Adilio said.

Later, at an apartment complex where women and children peered over the balcony, Ravix’s men stood guard. In a dimly lit room, the commander described the group as members of the Haitian military that Aristide dismantled 10 years ago. He said they have troops in every region of the country, and are demanding 10 years back pay from the government. They also want to work in cooperation with UN multi-national forces.

« We’ve been the ones protecting the country for the past five months, » Ravix said. « The U.N. is here to help the country and I have a force that’s willing to collaborate with the U.N. to make sure the country stays on the right track for democracy. »

« We have the right to bear weapons, » he said. « The constitution gives us that right. »

Rony, whose human rights organization has been monitoring the situation, said tensions between the police and former military are common.

He said the Haitian National Police has elements of both Aristide loyalists and the armed rebels who forced him out of office, and they’re in a power struggle.

Not to mention the ex-military which conducts its own version of law enforcement, and the angry chimeres outside of the police force.

« Today with all these groups, you cannot say for sure who committed a crime, » he said. « This is a very complex situation. »

life continues

Through it all, the resilient residents of Port-au-Prince continue with their daily lives. Vendors sell their wares.

Brightly colored taxis, called tap-taps, transport people to and fro.

Children beg on the crowded streets. And men and women, most of them unemployed, wander through the city hustling to make money every way possible.

« Apparently things are calm...but you can’t trust what you’re seeing, » said Jacques Jean-Vernet, an administrator and sociology professor at the University of Haiti.

« What you’re seeing now is that the Lavalas have pulled back and the former military have pulled back, but they’re waiting for elections then they’re going to throw their weight on the balance. »

Some of Jean-Vernet’s students, meanwhile, fear for their lives. They were among those who demonstrated against Aristide in the days leading to his departure, and they had to flee their neighborhoods to escape the wrath of his supporters.

Jean-Baptiste, a 23-year-old freshman sociology major, said chimeres came to his house and threatened his two sisters. He decided to move to another neighborhood to keep his family safe.

« Some people who persecuted me when Aristide was here still have their weapons, » he said.

« They can just stop and shoot me, and what bothers me is nothing is being done about it. »


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