US Troops in Southern Haiti Town Face Showdown With Local Military
After precarious dealings with a Haitian colonel, US special forces work out a deal, but then an American soldier is shot at midnight
LES CAYES, HAITI — AS United States troops fan out across the country, Haiti is greeting them with a mix of open smiles and clenched fists.
After days of open embrace by the population of Les Cayes, a seaport near the tip of Haiti's southern peninsula, a US soldier was shot around midnight Sunday, by one of two men who approached him. It was the first action against US soldiers in Haiti since the incident in Cap-Haitien on Sept. 24, where gunmen threatened to fire and US troops responded, killing 10 Haitians.
Sunday's shooting here illustrates the roller-coaster ride that Haiti represents for US troops. Unlike more peaceful deployments in other southern cities such as Jacmel and Petit-Goave, Les Cayes has been an on-again-off-again tinderbox since US troops arrived on Sept. 27.
Tensions began a few hours before their arrival. Haitian Lt. Col. Evens Gedeon told his subordinates he wanted to defend his barracks against US troops. (The United States, not wanting to surprise Haitian officials, has been alerting them when and where its teams are going.) ``He was very afraid that they would disarm his soldiers,'' says Haitian Lt. Eddy Desrosiers.
By 10 a.m., Lieutenant Desrosiers and Maj. Joseph Miracle Ira had persuaded the colonel not to take hostile action. Two hours later, 37 men of the US Army 3rd Special Forces Group landed in Les Cayes and drove immediately to the barracks.
``It was very tense,'' recalls US Capt. Robert Bevelacqua of his first meeting with Colonel Gedeon. ``He didn't want to look me in the eye.''
The US troops set up in the Haitian military compound. Ge-deon, who was commander of Haiti's southern military district, drove to Port-au-Prince to confer with senior officials of the Haitian Armed Forces (FAHD).
About two hours later, tensions increased further. A US soldier alerted Captain Bevelacqua that behind the military barracks was a prison full of malnourished Haitians.
The captain, finding gross human-rights violations at the prison, met with the Haitian colonel's subordinates that night to talk about the situation. ``They never monitored it,'' the captain says. ``I told them they had 24 hours to fix it.''
Bevelacqua went to sleep. Gedeon returned from Port-au-Prince. The next morning, US Brig. Gen. Richard Potter arrived with the FADH inspector general and three FADH colonels to view the prison. When General Potter saw the conditions, Bevelacqua recalls, he turned angrily to the Haitian officials and told them: ``We cannot allow human beings to be treated like that.'' Gedeon, who did not attend the meeting, paced back and forth outside.
At this point, Gedeon began to lose his cool, according Haitian Army personnel, who asked not to be identified. Late that afternoon, Haitian soldiers began to harass US patrols.
Two trucks with nine uniformed Haitian soldiers began to swerve back and forth near a four-man US patrol.
``We just ignored them,'' says Staff Sgt. William Malli. Later that night, as some of the troops drove toward a local restaurant, the colonel himself sped ahead of the US vehicle with his truck, then turned around and sped by the other direction.
A few minutes later, one truck appeared at the refugee-aid center, which the US troops had taken over as their base. It contained Haitian soldiers and two men handcuffed - a sign from the Haitian colonel that he was still taking prisoners, according to US soldiers.
A Haitian military source would neither confirm nor deny these or the next incidents. According to Bevelacqua, the colonel then appeared at the refugee center, demanding to see him. ``Why are you patrolling?'' Bevelacqua recalls the colonel shouting at him. ``Why are you on the streets without me?'' The US captain smelled alcohol on the colonel's breath. After Bevelacqua made his report, his orders came back the same night: If the colonel returns, arrest him.
Gedeon did not return. After a tense night, during which Haitian soldiers again rode by the US base of operations, a FADH colonel arrived the next morning with US military officials and fired Gedeon, installing his second-in-command, Major Ira, as commander of the barracks.
``When they fired the colonel, everything stopped,'' says Bevelacqua of the harassment against his troops. ``A 180-degree turn.'' At a ceremony the same afternoon, the Haitian major pledged full cooperation for the duration of the US troop mission.
But relations between the two military forces are still strained. Haitian troops clearly see a dominant US presence that is increasing its reach. As citizens of Les Cayes muster their courage to tell US soldiers about military and police abuses, US soldiers are beginning to demand answers about how Haitian officials have been running their country.
With cooler heads presiding, supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Les Cayes joined in a demonstration to celebrate the changes in Haiti, the first peaceful demonstration held there since Gedeon took charge.
But US soldiers were under no delusions. ``One of these days, someone is going to take a shot at us,'' said a US sergeant hours before the shooting. ``And I think it's going to be soon.''