Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: Violence Feeds Hunger in Countryside

Jane Regan

ST. MARC, Feb 14 2004 (IPS) - Even with death all around him, the hammers and saws at Marc Antoine’s coffin-making workshop lay still. In a city under siege, business is slow.

As this small port town endured another day of violence this week, doors to businesses and schools remained tightly shut, curtains pulled, bolts drawn..

Haiti’s long-smouldering political crisis – pitting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide against a political party opposition that has slowly gathered support – burst into deadly violence Feb. 5 when an armed gang took over the police station in Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city just up the coast from here.

The battle for the station and the police counter-offensive two days later left at least a dozen, and perhaps many more, dead. Many of them were police officers.

In the days that followed, unknown armed government opponents chased police out of almost a dozen other towns, and even occupied a few of them for a day or two. People angry at police repression, Aristide and his ruling Lavalas Family Party, also torched the stations and other government buildings.

At least 30 and perhaps as many as 50 people have died in nine days of shoot-outs, skirmishes and ambushes in Gonaives, St. Marc and Gros Morne.


Newspapers and television reports have blared headlines warning of a national "insurrection" and "spreading rebellion". In fact, while many towns are without police, as of Feb. 13, one week after the uprising started, only Gonaives is in the hands of armed rebels.

Police and armed government supporters – known as "chimère" or thugs – have successfully retaliated in other towns, not only chasing down and sometimes killing some of those who took over police stations, but also going after anyone suspected of anti-government sentiments.

Houses and radio stations have been attacked and burned, people shot, barricades erected.

But the violence and chaos reaches much further than the neighbourhoods and cities where clashes are taking place.

In St. Marc on Wednesday the streets were littered with carcasses of car chassis, engine blocks, trashed market stands, boulders and the remnants of burned tires.

Downtown was calm, but above the city police and armed pro-government militiamen were chasing anti-government militants from the Assembly of Consequent St. Marc Militants (RAMICOS). Gunfire crackled and popped from the hills.

There would be at least five dead when it ended two days later.

"This morning there were two burned bodies," Antoine said.

The other men idling in the street-side shop looked up, faces blank. The mounting death toll probably will not even mean more sales, since the three-year-long political crisis has plunged the Americas’ poorest country into a hole deeper than ever, with falling per capita revenues and employment.

"Those guys you see with guys down there," Antoine said, pointing to a man in fatigues and another in a Hawaiian shirt, both carrying guns.

"That’s Clean Sweep, the pro-Aristide gang. They’re allowed to have guns. But RAMICOS – they’re not. That’s how it is in Haiti. Everything for Lavalas. Nothing for the rest of us."

Antoine said he is not a member of RAMICOS; he is just a coffin-maker with four mouths to feed. But like many in this ruin of a town, he is angry at Aristide’s empty promises and at the corruption, greed and repression that have come from his government and police force.

For several years, graft has been rampant at the port – one of Haiti’s most important – and Clean Sweep members have terrorised anyone wanting to speak out against the president. Gang rivalry became gang warfare, and a poor but peaceful port turned into a war zone.

"Peace. I just want peace," Antoine says. "Aristide promised peace but he lied. The only way we’ll get it is if Aristide leaves, and no matter what, I won’t believe any promises any more," he said, causing heads to nod.

Up the highway in Gonaives, heavily armed militiamen dressed in Haitian National Police uniforms, U.S. Army surplus gear and muscle shirts manned huge barricades at both ends of town.

Haiti’s national highway number 1, which links the capital to three northern departments or provinces, has been blocked since Feb. 5. Nothing gets through: not gasoline, not produce, nothing.

Over the mountain in Limbé on Friday, a dozen women were hunched over piles of three-foot wide "kasav", manioc flatbread. They were distressed, batting flies off the stacks of traditional bread, drying out loaves that were on the verge of turning rotten.

Lilly Michele, who thinks she is 57, is distraught.

"You see these?" said the mother of six, pointing to a two-foot high pile. "They’re gone already. You see those? If the road doesn’t open up, they’ll be rotten tomorrow."

Michele, like the other kasav merchants waiting for a truck and a way to reach the capital Port-au-Prince with their wares, said she borrowed money to make her bi-weekly purchase.

"I borrowed about 125 U.S. dollars, which means I have to pay back about 160 dollars," she added. Loan-sharking in Haiti is rampant. "I’m ruined. What will I do?"

While Michele and her friends – all mothers, all rural residents and many the only revenue-earners in their families – were trying to figure out how to recuperate the equivalent of well over 1,000 dollars, in the capital, Haiti’s United Nations representative Adama Guindo warned of worsening hunger if the highway is not opened and the violence halted.

Western hemisphere leaders were reluctant Friday to pledge any sort of help to end the fighting. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, flanked by leaders from Canada, the Caribbean and the Organisation of American States (OAS), rejected any intervention in Haiti, but said they would consider sending an international police force, if requested.

Reports on Saturday said rebels had blocked the road to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, cutting off another source of supplies.

Some 3.8 million people go hungry every day in Haiti, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) feeds 268,000 people in northern Haiti – many of them kids in school lunch programmes. But the blocked highway from the capital means stocks cannot be replenished.

So, where 1,400 tonnes of rice once stood, only 49 sacks remain. And insecurity and violence mean WFP is reluctant to send employees outside Port-au-Prince to flood-stricken areas, where tens of thousands have relied on the handouts.

"We have closed those operations," WFP Latin American and Caribbean Information Officer Alejandro Chicheri told IPS.

WFP hopes to get rice to Cap-Haitien by boat next week, he added.

 
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