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Haitians Ask, 'Where Are the Americans?'

October 01, 1994|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As U.S. combat soldiers directed traffic, sipped from canteens or leaned up against massive tank barrels bearing such foreboding nicknames as "House of Pain," bewilderment and the seeds of anger began to well up Friday in alleyways and on street corners where Haitians had rejoiced in the U.S. forces' arrival just 11 days ago.

"Where are the Americans?" shouted Eric Auguste, a pro-democracy demonstrator who for more than an hour had battled Haitian police--the same police who are supposed to protect him--as they attacked people gathered peacefully for a march against their country's military rulers.

As he fought bullets with rocks, Auguste shouted, "Why don't the American soldiers just take all their guns away? It would be easy for them. For us, we have only our bare hands."

A mile away, as the U.S. Military Police, part of a U.S. force sent here to restore democracy three years after a military coup overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, dug in behind the tanks and armed vehicles, another demonstrator who had fled the scene of carnage had a more dire assessment.

"I think, as the days are passing, the American soldiers are showing in which camp they now are. By not helping the people today, we can see they are with the police and their attaches ," he said.

Those were alarming words on a day when U.S. officials conceded there was concern at the highest levels that the U.S. military intervention here was near the brink of losing some of the hearts and minds of the poorest Haitians--the people the Clinton Administration ordered the intervention to save from tyranny.

"I think there's a great concern about that," conceded Stanley Schrager, U.S. Embassy spokesman, during a briefing assessing the day's events. "That is the kind of support that is necessary for us to accomplish our mission here."

Fueling such concern were other operational facets of the way the U.S. military Friday carried out a mission the U.S. Army spokesman here described as one only of deterrence.

The Army's Sheridan tanks and vehicles with mounted machine guns blocked off streets leading to the wealthiest residential neighborhoods, where most of Haiti's elite strongly support the military rulers who seized power.

"They're guarding the rich, while leaving the poor to be slaughtered," said another demonstrator, who fled to one of the armored roadblocks after the pitched street battles broke out.

At the heart of the growing concern among U.S. officials and the Haitians alike is the issue of disarmament--or rather, the lack of it.

In the aftermath of Friday's killings, beatings and near-anarchy, Schrager refused to rule out the possibility that U.S. commanders will now decide to take more forcible measures to confiscate the vast weapons legally registered to Haiti's police and paramilitary groups.

It was that weaponry that was used Friday to terrorize a peaceful demonstration timed to commemorate the thousands of Haitian soldiers and civilians killed during the military coup on the same day three years ago.

So far, the U.S. Command in Port-au-Prince has used only diplomacy and the implied threat of the troop presence to force Haiti's rulers to disarm their own agents.

U.S. Army spokesman Col. Barry Willey said Friday that the U.S. military is continuing a voluntary, nationwide money-for-guns program that so far has netted just 287 weapons, about half of which were grenades.

But most analysts said that it has yet to have any impact in a nation where there are between 75,000 and 100,000 legally registered firearms. And it was equally clear, as it was in the early days of the U.S. military's humanitarian intervention in Somalia, that Haitian popular opinion wants disarmament more than anything.

An old Haitian with a white beard and ancient blue Freemason's beret shouted such sentiment from the front steps of the Sante Rose Delima funeral parlor near the site of Friday's violence, which was largely restricted to the sprawling neighborhood around the paramilitary headquarters.

"What are your American soldiers doing here anyway?" he yelled to two passing American journalists. "There are two people shot dead inside here, killed by (the paramilitary group) FRAPH. And there are no soldiers to be seen."

Another elderly Haitian sitting beside him added: "Look, the population here loves the American soldiers. But since they are here, we don't see anything from them. They have to handcuff (Haitian army chief Lt. Gen. Raoul) Cedras and (Police Chief) Michel Francois, put them out of the country and take away all their guns."

The U.S. forces have, in fact, done a great deal. In another section of the city shortly before the gunfire broke out, U.S. Army Military Police caught one of the notorious attaches , or armed police allies, in the middle of the street. They stripped him of his pistol and two ammunition clips, handcuffed him and forced him to kneel in the street for half an hour as a crowd of thousands jeered and cheered.

On a grander scale, U.S. Army technicians performed a near-miracle on Thursday night. After several day's work and with the flip of a switch, they doubled the power to a city that has lived with only a few hours of light each day for years.

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