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Haiti : Death march

Supporters of ousted president continue to sow violence despite the presence of a UN peace-keeping force..

By Jane Regan

3rd Nov. 04, Port-au-Prince

Taken by AlterPresse from Noticias Aliadas

Eight months after Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned amidst civil and armed strife, the conflicts and polarization that ripped the country apart are as palpable as ever. "What is going on is literally insane," human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux said. "It is what we call in philosophy a death march. If we can’t stop this, we are looking at the destruction of the Haitian nation." Bajeux was referring to the political violence that has dominated Haiti for decades, always coexisting in an almost surreal manner with the rest of Haitian life.

On a day like any otherÂ…

On a recent sunny day, hundreds of well-dressed Haitian politicians and civic leaders and a smattering of international consultants huddled around tables in the air-conditioned rooms of a fancy hotel on the hill overlooking the harbor. Between coffee breaks and buffets, they discussed the elections slated for 2005.

A little way down the mountainside, the UN compound, housing hundreds of development and aid experts and the blue-helmeted soldiers and police from the 3,500-member UN peacekeeping mission, was packed. The sprawling development kept cool and electrified by a massive generator (state electricity being only an occasional thing) was a-buzz with plans, projects and projections ; the walls were papered with charts and maps.

But on the edge of town, a platoon of armed men dressed in camouflage exercised, brandishing everything from M-14s to semi-automatic Israeli Galils. Haiti has no army - the armed forces were disbanded by Aristide in 1995 following a coup d’ etat - but these men are demanding they be reconstituted.

And at the bottom of the hill, the sporadic rattle of automatic gunfire echoed across the dirty downtown. Grey smoke rose from burning tire barricades. Schools, businesses, banks were shuttered. Black-hooded, black-helmeted policemen scurried down rock-strewn streets that looked like those of a country in a state of civil war.

Over 55 people, among them nine police officers, have been killed in the capital since political violence erupted on Sept. 30. That day - the 13th anniversary of the 1991 military coup d’ etat against Aristide (during his first term) - a few hundred people demonstrated to demand Aristide’s return. Police clashed with marchers. When it was over, three or four policemen and perhaps an equal number of demonstrators were dead. The headless bodies of three policemen were later found. Aristide supporters dubbed their action "Operation Baghdad" and said they would not stop until Aristide was returned to power.

Demands for the return of Aristide

Since then, the bodies of men with fatal bullet wounds to the head and the back are among the near daily deliveries to the putrid-smelling city morgue, where cadavers rot because the refrigeration unit has not been working properly for two months. Haitian police and UN peacekeepers have struggled to bring order, but not enough to satisfy diplomats. Canada and the US have advised their citizens not to visit Haiti, and the US also moved all non-essential embassy personnel out.

Interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue blames the violence directly on Haiti’s ex-president. "His (Aristide’s) capacity is only to destroy," Latortue told reporters on Oct. 17.

During Aristide’s last two years in power, groups of sometimes-armed young men nick-named chimère ("monster") who got zombie checks from government offices regularly threatened anti-government marchers, journalists and even government officials not deemed loyal enough. Aristide never clearly condemned them, and he had been light on his criticism of the latest violence, instead accusing Latortue of lying and calling for dialogue. "Latortue, stop the lying, stop the killings," Aristide said in an Oct. 20 statement in which he called for dialogue.

Some Aristide supporters say they are being unfairly targeted. Police have arrested hundreds, including well-known members of Aristide’s Lavalas party like two ex-parliamentarians and outspoken Aristide supporter Father Gérard Jean-Juste. Amnesty International has protested the priest’s arrest, as has his lawyer. "This pastor joins a growing number of political prisoners in Haiti," US law professor Bill Quigley said in an Oct. 16 statement.

Officials say the parliamentarians are the intellectual authors of the violence, a charge Lavalas senator Gérard Gilles - one of those arrested - said is unfounded. Gilles also admitted, however, that Lavalas extremists are responsible for most of the violence downtown.

Armed forces waiting

In the meantime, another armed force, believed to number between 1,000 and 2,000, is growing restless. Ex-Captain Remissainthe Ravix controls the ex-soldiers who led the anti-Aristide rebellion and are now stationed throughout the country. Early this month he brought some 50 men into the capital to set up a base in an apartment building. "For the past three or four weeks we have been ready, waiting for the government to call on us to bring order to the disorder," Ravix said. "But it seems like the government doesn’t want us... We are the ones who got rid of the dictator, and this is the thanks we get."

The interim government is facing tough dilemmas : penniless and desperate chimères, an ill-equipped and poorly trained police force, frustrated and hungry ex-soldiers and a UN peacekeeping force whose mandate appears to stop short of engagement. And that is just the beginning of the list.

The UN has come under criticism, but officials point out that UN cannot do it all. "Haitians have to do 20 or 30 percent," UN spokesman Damien Onses-Cardona said recently. "But I would like to note that violence in Haiti is not something completely new, that just started two weeks ago, all of a sudden. It is a country that has a very, very important history of violence and political violence."