The Ghosts of War; Pro-Government Vigilantes Loot and Murder, as Rebels with a Dark Past Storm toward the Capital. Can Haiti Be Saved?

Newsweek, March 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Ghosts of War; Pro-Government Vigilantes Loot and Murder, as Rebels with a Dark Past Storm toward the Capital. Can Haiti Be Saved?


Byline: Joseph Contreras, With John Barry in Washington and Malcolm Beith in New York

Even before the rebels reached Haiti's capital, corpses began turning up. Photographers found two men's bodies on Friday morning near John Brown Avenue, the main thoroughfare between Port-au-Prince and the upmarket suburb of Petion-Ville. One victim was in handcuffs. Both had died from shotgun blasts to the head. Near an inner-city market was the body of a man who had been castrated and slashed to death with a machete. A young boy's corpse lay just outside the city's seaport, not seeming to trouble the thugs who loitered nearby, waiting to pounce on unwary looters trying to haul away anything portable.

No police were in sight. Vehicles rolled through the city's nearly empty streets, packed with men known to frightened Haitians as chimeres -- "ghosts"--vigilantes loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the only freely elected president in Haiti's 200-year history. The men wore face paint and bandannas and carried old rifles, pistols and machetes. "We are ready to fight," said Luckenson St. Clair, 26 and unemployed. "We are prepared to die to defend our president." Sporadic gunfire rattled in the distance, and helicopters droned overhead, lifting foreign nationals out to safer places.

Although the insurgents' estimated strength was only 200 or so fighters, police fled their posts in city after city. As rebel forces gathered for a final assault on the capital, Aristide and his remaining followers seemed ill equipped to stop them. He had disbanded Haiti's notoriously brutal and coup-prone Army back in 1995. "The majority of [Haiti's] people are more or less on the sidelines right now," says Michele Montas, owner of a silenced independent Port-au-Prince radio station. "They're afraid of pro-Aristide thugs and all those rebels in the north. Everyone is in survival mode." The Haitian president vowed to serve out the final two years of his term, but his appeals for outside intervention did him little good. France openly urged him to resign even as it called for creation of an international force to restore order. The Bush administration, hinting heavily that Aristide should go, prepared to send down three warships and 2,200 Marines, although no one liked the idea of getting mixed up in Haiti, even as part of a peacekeeping team after a political settlement.

The rebels emerged virtually overnight. "The real mystery is where these guys are coming from," says Thayer Scott of the International Republican Institute, a group funded by the U. …

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