THEY once served under the dictatorial regime led by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, which overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a deadly 1991 coup. Now, they are an army of tradesmen, trudging into the desert that is Haiti's job market.
They are 3,368 former members of the Armed Forces of Haiti (FAHD) who have traded their guns for tools and enlisted in a US-funded program designed to help them enter civilian life.
So far, about two-thirds of them have completed intensive six-month courses in such fields as mechanics, carpentry, welding, plumbing, electricity, masonry, refrigeration, and computer science. "It was good when I was in the Army, because it was one of the only ways I could provide for my family and children," says former soldier Jean Joseph, who is now looking for work as an electrician. "But I think things will be better because now I actually have a profession."
The Demobilization and Reintegration Program was launched just after Mr. Aristide returned to office last year, during the American-led United Nations military intervention. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) manages the project and oversees instruction at 20 public and private schools throughout Haiti. The United States Agency for International Development is providing additional technical assistance and paying for the $2.5 million program.
Preparing former soldiers for civilian life is a crucial part of the Haitian government's strategy for ending Haiti's vicious cycles of military rule.
Mr. Joseph was among the most recent and largest group of graduates - about 270 - who received diplomas in a ceremony Dec. 1 at a school in Port-au-Prince. The school, run by Roman Catholic priests, is on the grounds of St. Jean Bosco Church, a reminder of a less-than-ceremonious day for members of the Haitian armed forces. On Sept. 11, 1988, Haitian troops watched as armed men in plainclothes ambushed the church while then-Father Aristide was delivering one of his fiery liberationist sermons. Thirteen people were killed, and the church set on fire.
Haitian soldiers and paramilitary gunmen known as "attaches" have been blamed for killing an estimated 3,000 people during the three years of military rule that began with the 1991 coup.
Some unwilling to support
Although a majority of FAHD's rank-and-file soldiers have taken their first steps to civilian life by learning a trade, some are apparently unwilling to support Haitian democracy. They include former military ruler Gen. Prosper Avril, who has been implicated in an alleged plot to kill members of the governing Lavalas Party. He is now holed up in the Colombian Embassy in Port-au-Prince seeking political asylum.
While some former troops have been the target of reprisals by angry civilians for atrocities committed by the Cedras regime, Aristide's calls for reconciliation appear to have averted widespread violence against them.
Each graduate now is armed only with a tool kit corresponding to his new trade. But the real battle will be finding a job in a country with an unemployment rate estimated at 80 percent.
"There is no work to be found in Haiti," says Yves Joseph, an ex-soldier now certified as a plumber. And there are other obstacles, he says. "If you want to find a job in Haiti a lot depends on ... the people you know," he says.
Returning to the Army is not an option because it no longer exists. Aristide has said that along with keeping relative peace in the country over the past year, the dismantling of the Army is the most important achievement of his interrupted five-year term. That term is scheduled to end Feb. 7, 1996, after an election Dec. 17 in which Aristide is constitutionally barred from running. If the peace is to be maintained, some observers say, one of the biggest accomplishments of Haiti's next president will have to be the creation of jobs for former soldiers and civilians alike.
IOM workers are providing the graduates of the reintegration program with contacts and advice on finding jobs. But the agency is staying away from finding them work, which could stir up resentment among the ranks of unemployed civilians. "We are not giving the soldiers an advantage over the other population," says IOM spokesman Michael Barton. "What we are merely doing is giving them the chance to make up some of the time that was perhaps lost in the Army, where they were not taught a profession."