Guns & Haiti

When your country is bristling with weapons, peace and democracy begin to look like targets, not dreams

In the sweltering hilltop town of Petionville, about ten miles above the congestion and cacophony of Port-au-Prince, people gathered on the morning of March 7. Under the watchful eyes of U.S. Marines and French troops in armored vehicles, men and women wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Haitian flag and carrying signs denouncing Jean-Bertrand Aristide filled the main plaza, Place St. Pierre.

A little after 9:00 a.m. the crowd, now several hundred strong, began to parade downhill, escorted by very alert soldiers. Rebel leader Guy Philippe looked like a rock star in the back of a pickup truck, pumping his arms in the air to the enthusiastic shouts of supporters. The march was a victory lap for Philippe and his motley pack of insurgents, who are credited with ousting Aristide, and also an expression of pent-up hostility toward the deposed president and his militant and often violent loyalists, pejoratively known as chimères.

During the descent from the rolling hills of Petionville thousands more joined in, like a landslide gathering mass. They were headed to the National Palace, an enormous white-domed building in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m. the first wave of marchers arrived at the plaza fronting the palace. Some bore banners. Others carried lengths of rope, which they said they would use to subdue chimères. The mood was jubilant, aggressive, and charged with a volatile energy. One group chased a gray-haired man accused of being a chimère. He fled to a nearby police station for protection. Another band tore down a pro-Aristide sign, carried it to the fence surrounding the palace, and set it on fire. As dark smoke billowed, a fire truck approached and tried to make its way to the flames, but people clogged the street, chanting taunts. The silver-helmeted firemen then playfully turned a water hose on the sweaty, dancing throng, and doused any potential malevolence. Demonstrators, firemen, and observers smiled and relaxed as the tension palpably uncurled. In fact many journalists decided the demonstration was over at that point and began to wander off.

Then shots cracked the air. Bursts of automatic gunfire rang out from several directions. I had just left the plaza to follow Philippe into the Plaza Hotel, where he was about to sit down to lunch. At the sound of the first shot, his guards instantly pulled out snub-nosed machine guns, seemingly from nowhere. The hotel closed and locked its doors.

After about five minutes, I urged an attendant to crack the rear gate and let me slip out. Gingerly I headed back to the plaza. Six people would die that day near the palace, including a Spanish-TV journalist. At least twenty more would be wounded, among them a Sun-Sentinel photographer.

Death comes easily in Haiti. Frequently in the form of a bullet. Often anonymously.

On a sidewalk where, moments earlier, the elated multitudes had been celebrating, lay the body of a man shot through the chest. He wore jeans and a blue T-shirt, now soaked in blood. His death-mask face was serene, his killer unknown but assumed to be an Aristide loyalist, a despised chimère.

People squeezed in close and stared down at the corpse, oblivious to the symbolic tombstone that loomed directly above him -- the half-finished Freedom Tower, a monument to Haiti's 200 years of independence, whose construction was halted amid the chaos that had recently engulfed the country. Now it was spattered with blood.

The flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince took two hours. Before Haiti came into view, the turquoise water blended seamlessly with the cloudless sky, an infinity of blue. But the tranquility of that mesmerizing sight was short-lived. At Port-au-Prince airport troops lined the tarmac, dressed in flak jackets and carrying rifles. "Thank God," muttered one passenger. It would be a recurring theme: Arms, depending on who had them, were instruments of either comfort or chaos.

In Haiti guns are a form of currency -- those who have them are better off than those who don't. And today they are everywhere, from the airport to retail stores, from car dealerships to factories, from utility stations to hotels, where it's common to encounter rifle-toting sentries in the lobby.

Private security is a booming business. In fact armed guards have become a kind of status symbol. Down the street from my (secured) Petionville hotel, at the Royal supermarket, a man in uniform lazily held a shotgun as customers passed to buy milk and bottled water. The sense of Haiti as armed camp has intensified with the arrival of foreign officials and soldiers. A contingent of State Department security agents staying at my hotel turned the dining room into a sea of khaki during lunch. Except for one man dressed in black. He was watching over his colleagues as they ate, an automatic rifle at his side.

While some degree of lawlessness is a more or less permanent condition throughout Haiti, a heightened sense of anxiety exists in Port-au-Prince, where the heavily armed chimères represent an unpredictable danger. And as the shootings at the palace demonstration illustrated, Aristide's hasty departure on February 29 did nothing to end the violence. The Americans can help stitch together a makeshift government. A new president and prime minister can be solemnly sworn in. New elections can be promised. But it will mean little in a country where men with guns -- whether anti-Aristide rebels or chimères -- rule Port-au-Prince's sprawling slums by day and control the city by night.

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