First US Troop Clash Follows Day of Joy In Haitian Capital
Killings in north mar otherwise smooth occupation; news of US presence is slow to reach hinterlands
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — WHEN United States soldiers fired their first shots of a week-long occupation - killing 10 Haitians Saturday night - it was a harsh reality check for Operation Uphold Democracy, which since last Tuesday's violence had been running unbelievably smoothly.
Yesterday morning, the Marines moved to secure police headquarters in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, after a clash in which one US sailor was wounded and 10 Haitians died. It was not clear whether those killed were Haitian police or armed militia known as ``attaches.'' Five Haitians were detained in connection with the incident, in which US soldiers opened fire after the sailor was shot in the leg. Haitian soldiers and police have abandoned their posts, while civilians ransacked the military barracks, taking guns.
The clash came on the heels of a visit to Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien by US Secretary of Defense William Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili, who expressed pride in the US soldiers' efforts. Their trip coincided with an outpouring of Haitians, emboldened by the US presence, into the streets, chanting slogans of support for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Saturday's massive gatherings in Port-au-Prince were slightly marred by a few arrests and injuries. Haitian police broke up one demonstration, held near military headquarters and out of sight of US soldiers, with tear gas and clubs. Other reports of isolated police abuses surfaced, but minor disruptions are considered unavoidable in the difficult transition from military rule to democracy.
While Saturday night's shootings were a sobering aftershock to the rejoicing earlier in the day, a US official cautioned that the clash must be viewed in context. ``In a country so polarized, with so much political extremism and where violence has been so common,'' he said, ``such an event should not be unexpected, especially with 15,000 US forces arrayed on the side of the people against the oppressive forces which have ruled this country for decades.''
Word spreads slowly
Meanwhile, in areas of the country outside the cities, news of the deployment of the 11,000 US troops over the past week seeps in slowly.
In the coastal town of Luly, 35 miles north of the capital, US helicopters have made daily runs across the water and surrounding mountains since Monday. The majority of people living here, fishermen and boat builders, are isolated from the news, as they have no radios. The presence of the ``big, black hawks'' surprised them.
``I heard from my neighbor that they were here, because we have a few problems they are going to help us out with,'' says Bertha, scrubbing the morning dishes in preparation for lunch. ``So far she's been right. There used to be a lot of shooting in the area. For the last week, there's been none. Now my heavy heart can rest and I can sleep better.''
Bertha's cement-block home looks out on a row of boats that local fishermen use for their livelihood - mostly 14-footers painted white with yellow and blue stripes. They have names like ``The Best in Town,'' or ``A Little More,'' or ``It's for Jesus.'' Over the last several years, fishermen stopped using their boats for local fishing and began marketing people: people who wanted to leave Haiti.
Jean-Claude has been building boats most of his life. He can build a 14-footer in a week's time for a profit of $20. Under the United Nations embargo, prices for supplies went up, while business went down. When thousands took to the seas for the US with the hope of receiving political asylum, business jumped, then came to a halt when the asylum rules changed. Now Jean-Claude is waiting for the embargo to be lifted so he can go back to earning enough money to provide for his family of five.
``We want to change things,'' he explains as he shaves the side of a wooden plank. ``But there are people around here who don't. If you speak of that man [President Aristide],...they'll come after you. It's still not safe for me to mention his name, because afterward someone could come after me.''
Aristide has indicated in Washington that he will return to Haiti by Oct. 15. An accord brokered with the de facto government by the US requires Haitian Army Commander Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to resign by then. Haiti's parliament is expected to ratify an amnesty law for all those involved in the 1991 coup d'etat.
``This is an American deal,'' says James, where the pasttime in Luly is still watching boat builders and not, as in the capital, watching the gigantic warships. ``And I don't trust the Americans. They have lied to us for three years - how can we suddenly trust them in one day?''
``If Aristide comes back by the 15th, then we'll all celebrate. If he doesn't, 10,000 people a day will start taking to the seas again,'' he continues, encouraged by his friends nodding in agreement. ``Tell President Clinton that. And tell him if I die trying to get there, my ghost will come to haunt him.''
A different kind of occupation
One lone soldier guards the military post at Luly. Except for the presence of the warships passing at sea and the helicopters overhead, he says he knows nothing about the Americans.
``I'm pretty isolated,'' he mumbles, shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. ``I have no radio and no one has contacted me to tell me anything about them. If they're coming here, I'll find out when they arrive.''
Andrius, referring to the previous 19-year occupation when more than 50,000 people died, says: ``I was afraid this would be like the 1915 American occupation. But that's not true. They're not going to kill us. They're going to lift the embargo that's been killing us. I desperately need the money my daughters have been sending me from Miami to survive.''
In spite of a clause in the Sept. 18 agreement that states that the embargo will be lifted immediately, US officials are now indicating that the embargo will remain in place until Aristide is restored to office.
``We've waited this long, what's another few weeks,'' says Janet, who has come to Luly to escape the invasion. She's now looking forward to returning home to the capital to see for herself the troops have come in peace. ``At least then we'll know we suffered for a good reason.''