Would-be soldiers hope for revival of Haitian army

‘I want to see order in my country,’ says volunteer at informal military camp

Civilian volunteers receive military instruction from veterans of Haiti's former army in Port-au-Prince. Haiti has been without an army since 1995, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the military after he was deposed in a coup and then restored to power with the help of U.N. forces. The two candidates who faced off in Sunday's presidential vote say they support restoring the armed forces in some form. (Associated Press)Civilian volunteers receive military instruction from veterans of Haiti’s former army in Port-au-Prince. Haiti has been without an army since 1995, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the military after he was deposed in a coup and then restored to power with the help of U.N. forces. The two candidates who faced off in Sunday’s presidential vote say they support restoring the armed forces in some form. (Associated Press)
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Their military fatigues faded and their grizzled faces stern, the squad of veterans barks out orders to rows of young men and women who sweat as they run through exercises under the blazing Caribbean sun.

The more than 150 volunteers who have gathered on a hilltop outside the capital are desperate for a chance to serve their country. Many say they are anxious to bring security to Haiti and help end its long series of troubles.

But the would-be recruits don’t really have any place to go: Haiti has no army — or any other military forces for that matter.

The drill leaders and ranks of volunteers who eagerly have assembled here represent nothing more than an informal movement of Haitians eager to re-establish an army — an idea that unnerves Haitians who remember times darkened by military coups, oppression and abuse.

The Haitian army was disbanded in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after he had been deposed in a coup and then restored to power with the help of U.N. forces. The continuing presence of U.N. troops is a sore point for many Haitians.

The volunteers run through an obstacle course overseen by veterans of Haiti's former army. The training upsets Police Chief Mario Andresol, who says similar groups have misled poor people into thinking the training would help them land police or security jobs. (Associated Press)

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The volunteers run through an obstacle course overseen by veterans of Haiti’s ... more >

The two candidates who vied for Haiti’s presidency in Sunday’s vote both support restoring the armed forces in some form. (Preliminary results are expected to be announced March 31.) That has raised the hopes of many among the ragtag recruits, who run through several hours of drills three times a week without any pay.

“I want to see order in my country,” says Pierre Jeans Rigaud, 26, a neatly dressed student from the neighborhood. “We all want to see it.”

The prospect of a new military is especially attractive for young Haitians, given the scarcity of jobs. An estimated 70 percent of the population is younger than 30, according to the Washington-based group, Population Action International.

Even before the January 2010 earthquake, unemployment was widespread and 80 percent of the people lived in poverty.

Delise Wilson, 36, who survives by grabbing whatever sewing jobs he can, says: “If the army is coming back, I want to be part of it. … Even if they don’t have any money, I’m willing to volunteer to protect the country.”

Nestor Apolon, the squad’s self-appointed commander, says “thousands and thousands” are waiting to be trained.

While there are no weapons visible at the makeshift base in Carrefour, a dusty maze of dirt lanes and concrete shacks, there are reminders of Haiti’s military past.

Mr. Apolon, for one, proudly acknowledges that he fought with the rebels who ousted Mr. Aristide for a second time in 2004. A man guarding the gate wears a keychain adorned with the faces of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former dictators known as “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc.”

Others in the compound served from 1991 to 1994, when the army ruled Haiti and committed some of the worst human rights violations in recent memory. Some contend they are technically still on duty, claiming that Mr. Aristide’s 1995 demobilization was unconstitutional.

Together, it’s a tableaux of the pro-military fringe right, a looming presence in Haiti.

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