Haiti has long been an obstacle course of poverty and neglect. In the capital, one must navigate past piles of garbage and streams of sewage. In the countryside, there are man-size potholes as well as drivers who hog the road and never dim their brights.
But today drivers must steer around the detritus of revolt: broken glass, rocks and boulders, car parts, trees, burning tires, and armed men. More than a dozen towns and villages are subject to a patchwork siege of opposing political clans - those favoring the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and those demanding his immediate resignation. By placing barricades on the road, men packing Uzis, revolvers, bottles and rocks have been able to secure control of their individual territories.
In Gonaives, Haiti's fourth largest city, young men swagger along the grimy roads drunk with their newly acquired power. They are the Artibonite Resistance Front, a gang of more than 100 former Aristide supporters seeking revenge for the death of their leader last September. They are also fed up with Aristide's dictatorial ways. Earlier this month the thugs demolished the police station and murdered several officers.
The Front headquarters is located in the seaside slum of Raboteau, where the smell of garbage mixes with the lingering smoke from burning tires. They operate from a corner building surrounded by a moat of sewage and dozens of armed men. Spokesman Winter Etienne laughs when asked if he wears a blue-checkered ski cap because of his name. But he says there's nothing funny about the Front's plans to take over the entire country.
First they are going after Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city on the northern coast, and St. Marc, 35 miles to the south. Then they plan to go after Port-au-Prince. And they appear to have the weapons to do it. They're stocked with M1s, M10s and M16s and also M60s, the kind that Rambo swung over his shoulder.
Unexpected reinforcements have created a new ripple of fear among Haitians who remember life under the paramilitary force FRAPH (Front for the Advancement of Progress of Haiti), which formed in 1993 and supported a military-led coup. Jodel Chamblain, one of the leaders of that death squad, along with Cap Haitien's former police chief Guy Philippe, have just joined forces with the Front. "This is a recipe for civil war," says a former government employee.
Aristide has sought reinforcements, too, calling for international intervention. France, Haiti's former colonizer, offered support if Aristide "commits himself to respect for civil peace."
From Gonaives it's difficult to drive to Cap Haitien , but daily flights from the capital still operate. Schools are closed, and there's no gas. But there's little evidence yet of a humanitarian crisis - daily activity in most cities is normal. After sunset, though, Cap Haitien closes up as the police and their supporters set up barricades to keep out the enemy.
The Front has secured many of the other smaller towns of the North. On Monday, they killed three police before taking control of Hinche. In Trou du Nord, a small town on the way to the border with the Dominican Republic, Winter King stands in front of a makeshift barricade, turning away vehicles. Never taking his finger off the trigger of his handgun the 22-year-old spits out his anger against Aristide. A few days earlier, other rebels burned the town's police station, city hall, and telecommunications building, leaving this section of the country without government representation.
On the streets of St. Marc there's also a feeling of intimidation, but this time it comes from the police and Aristide supporters. Rebels have attacked the town but a special security force deployed by the government regained control the next day. Here, as in Cap Haitien , it is the opposition that has gone into hiding. Routine nighttime attacks have created a climate of terror and insecurity.
In Port-au-Prince the nearly daily demonstrations that closed businesses and left the streets in chaos have quieted. An attempt by the two main opposition groups - the business and human rights coalition of 184, and the political group Convergence - are trying to distance themselves from the violence of the Front.
At dusk on Sunday, thousands of people, many of whom may well have been fighting each other hours earlier, were drinking and dancing to the Mardi Gras bands. Most Haitians say they just want to live in peace. Celebrating Carnival this weekend is as important to most Haitian as it is for Catholics to attend Mass on Christmas Eve. "Forget politics," says Yamba, a musician who attends Carnival religiously. "The real thing that could cause this government to fall? Not allowing us to celebrate Carnival."