By Leisa Faulkner and Paul Burke
Haiti Journal #6
As the hurricane season begins in this troubled island nation, the Haitian people dodged a different kind of storm yesterday. In a stunning victory for Haiti's embattled but tenacious democracy, a group of nearly 300 renegade soldiers dressed in the camoflauge fatigues of Haiti's long disbanded military surrendered to government authorities shortly after 6:00 pm last Wednesday, July 30 after a day of tense negotiations at the Grand Prison in Cap Haitien, the largest city on Haiti'snorthern coast.
Sparking grave concern among the Haitian population, members of the old Haitian military, deposed by former President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1994, re-emerged in Cap Haitien, Mirbale and Wanamet demanding reinstatement and fourteen years of alleged lost wages.
Representatives of Haitian President Rene Preval refused to negotiate with the disgruntled former soldiers, instead giving them two options: surrender peacefully or be forcefully removed by the combined forces of the Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH. The rebel soldiers, apparently relying on President Preval's reputation for cautious deliberation, appeared to be caught off guard by the government's decisive, uncompromising response to this potential crisis.
Facing a superior military force and convinced that Preval was prepared to use it, they gave up.
"They chose to live," summarized local Lavalas activist Lisius (Maco) Orel, an eyewitness.
One group of soldiers was loaded on to a yellow school bus for further questioning. Photographs we were able to take on board showed a ragged, dejected group, reportedly ranging in age from 18 to 80. Tensions mounted and we were warned to move away from the bus as the angry crowd of pro-government residents surrounded it. The bus left the scene without incident, however, as government troops behaved professionally and the crowd remained mostly calm.
Prominent Cap Haitien journalist Alinx Albert Obas, director of the media outlet Radio Tele Etensil, left the negotiations long enough to grant us an interview. Obas facilitated our access to the prisoners briefly before their departure. The prisoners looked tired and downcast. Some covered their faces from the camera, while others sat quietly or spoke on their cell phones.
The National Police oversaw the operation, as the U.N. tanks rolled past, unnecessarily at the ready in front of the Grand Prison, where members of the National Police set fire to a pile of uniforms confiscated from the former military in front of the self-constrained crowd.
Former military chief Morne Michel, representing Baby Doc in Haiti, coordinated the re-emergence of the deposed army which, not coincidentally, took place on the July 30 anniversary of the establishment by Papa Doc Duvalier of the infamous Tonton Makout.
Many of those wearing the old uniforms were recognized as having participated in the 2004 coup d' tat. They demanded 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, arguing that they have been deprived of lost wages since 1994 when the despised military was disbanded in order to fund social programs for the poor.
Paul Antoine Bien Aime spoke for Preval and the Internal Ministry and listened to all demands. Former Colonel Jeudi, who oversees payroll matters, also participated in the talks. Obas spoke to us prior to the public announcement and assured us that neither the requested money nor the re-instatement would be granted, and he was proven correct.
Finally, at about 6 p.m., the renegade soldiers were given thirty minutes to surrender, which they chose to do by 6:10 p.m. They were provided adequate clothing and made their way out of the prison and on to the waiting bus. Though somber, none showed signs of having endured any physical struggle.
Expressing a mix of cautious relief and frustration, several local residents who had gathered outside the Grand Prison agreed to speak to us about the events of the day. Recognizing us as U.S. citizens, one elderly, well dressed gentleman, Brunot Dorvil, spoke out loudly against U.S. intervention in Haiti. "Let my country go!" Dorvil said to us emphatically. When asked his opinion of President Bush, he shook his head in disapproval, but added that it is not just one American president who has caused trouble for Haiti. "For two hundred years the U.S. has caused trouble in Haiti."
A younger man who chose to remain anonymous expressed the skeptical view that the whole event was merely a chance for the unpopular MINUSTA to create the false impression that its presence in Haiti is justified.
August Maxi, a 33 year-old auto body painter expressed his enthusiastic support for ousted President Aristide: "Preval is not our real leader. Aristide is the only leader the people can hear."
Several members of the crowd seemed to agree with another man who complained that this is the second time the old army has tried to make a come back, and that as a result the people don't feel safe. "We never know when they may come back."
Just like the hurricanes.
Leisa Faulkner is an award-winning photographer and the founder of Children's Hope, a humanitarian organization that serves the children of Haiti. She is currently pursuing graduate degrees in development sociology and Third World political economy at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prof. Paul Burke teaches Sociology and Labor Studies at Sacramento State University and serves as Chair of the Coalition for Democracy in Haiti. His research focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Caribbean. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The authors would like to express our special thanks to our dear friend Lisius Orel for translating all interviews. Orel is a dedicated Lavalas activist and the co-founder of MABO (Movement Action to Benefit the Oppressed), a community service organization and orphanage in Port au Prince.