- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Naces LeBrun has heard the gunshots in the streets. Time and time again in the last few months, he’s shuttered his tiny downtown shop in a rush, fearful that a wayward bullet or a marauding gang might bring an early, unwanted death.

Like thousands of others in this crisis-weary nation, he shrugs his shoulders and raises his eyes to heaven when asked what might solve Haiti’s seemingly endless problems.

“A nice dish of hot food each day for the poor,” said Mr. LeBrun, 34, an artist who runs a gallery and print shop. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Nine months after President Jean Bertrand Aristide fled in the face of an armed rebellion, and U.S. Marines swept in to restore order, Haiti, by nearly all accounts, is still a woeful mess.

The Marines have been replaced by a multinational force of blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, but stability remains a fleeting dream for most Haitians. Beset by the hemisphere’s worst poverty, feeble government institutions and a political landscape fraught with infighting and distrust, their future remains clouded by uncertainty.

While a semblance of routine has returned to parts of the country of 8 million, large pockets of lawlessness and violence remain. Bodies are still found in the streets of Port-au-Prince some days, and sprawling slums have been reduced to smoldering war zones where police and U.N. forces rarely venture.

More than 100 people have been killed in the past three months — most of them victims of gang wars sparked by political affiliations or competition over turf. The morgue at the main hospital in Port-au-Prince has been so crowded at times that officials have ordered trucks to haul away the dead for burial in mass graves.

In Gonaives, Haiti’s second-largest city, government authority is in the hands of a few dozen policemen who are far outnumbered by armed gangs. The city’s 250,000 residents, meanwhile, continue their efforts to dig out from the ravages of September floods spawned by Tropical Storm Jeanne, which left 2,000 people dead and 1,000 missing.

Convoys bringing food and other aid have been attacked, either by gangs or by swarms of starving people, while the already inadequate health care system has been overwhelmed and left nearly powerless to help the sick and injured.

The U.S.-backed government of interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has scrambled to ease the nation’s suffering, but can do little more than appeal for more international help, even as it faces accusations of repression and violence against Mr. Aristide’s supporters.

“We need to put all this behind us,” said Emanuel Fortilus, 29, who sells herbal remedies from a sidewalk stall a few blocks from the National Palace. “Each side should put their heads together and cooperate, but that’s not happening.”

Instead, bitterness from Mr. Aristide’s overthrow still hangs over Haiti, fueling violence and choking efforts at reconciliation as the nation lurches toward elections scheduled for December.

A charismatic parish priest who was elected president in the early 1990s, Mr. Aristide was considered by many to be Haiti’s savior — the first national leader elected as an advocate of the poor in a nation long dominated by a tiny, wealthy elite.

Mr. Aristide, who disbanded Haiti’s army in the 1990s, fled in late February after a small band of former army officers and gang members mounted a revolt that quickly outmatched the poorly armed police force. Now living in South Africa, Mr. Aristide says he was forced into exile by the United States, a claim the Bush administration dismisses as baseless.

Foes of Mr. Aristide say his government was tainted by widespread corruption and the use of armed thugs to enforce his political will. Rumors float along the capital’s streets that the former president is smuggling money and weapons to his supporters in an effort to destabilize Haiti and perhaps set the stage for a return. But Mr. Aristide’s critics are criticized as well. Mr. Latortue’s government has illegally detained dozens of Aristide supporters, many of them shot and beaten first, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.

“The prime minister is not uniting Haiti, he’s dividing it,” said Gerard Jean-Juste, an Aristide associate and Catholic priest in Port-au-Prince who recently spent seven weeks in jail on charges of plotting against the security of the state. “This is an illegitimate government, one imposed by foreign powers.”

Father Jean-Juste said about 700 Aristide supporters are languishing in captivity, some of them chained to gurneys at the capital’s main hospital, recovering from wounds they say were inflicted by police.

“I’ve been here since Oct. 15, and nobody has told me why,” said Cathyl Jean Claude, 33, a resident of Cite Soliel, one of the capital’s worst slums, who said police picked him up for no reason and shot him seven times. “I am an artist, but they think I am pro-Aristide.”

A few blocks away at the national prison, witnesses say police killed more than a dozen Aristide supporters after a riot broke out Dec. 1.

Mr. Latortue has defended the use of tough tactics against the gangs, but said the government would investigate the prison incident.

“We have to know the truth,” he told reporters.

But even as many question the government’s crackdown, few believe Mr. Aristide’s supporters are innocent in the violence that continues to rack the nation. In October, three policemen were kidnapped and beheaded by thugs in an attack dubbed “Operation Baghdad,” a reference to the grisly killings by Muslim terrorists in Iraq.

On a visit to Haiti in early December, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called for police and U.N. forces to use firmer measures in dealing with the lawless gangs. As if to reinforce his point, his visit to the National Palace was disrupted when shots rang out from a passing car, prompting U.N. security forces to return fire.

In the face of the deteriorating security situation, U.N. officials announced last month that they would soon begin an effort to disarm the gangs and former soldiers, saying their force of 6,000 is receiving reinforcements.

“We are about to take a more proactive position,” said Carlos Chagas, an aide to Brazilian Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, the commander of the U.N. force. “Things are not perfect here, but if they were, we wouldn’t be here.”

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