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CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN : Haitians Expect Tide to Turn for Refugees : Caribbean: Beach towns saw thousands risk the sea to flee repression. Now villagers hope family and friends will return.

October 02, 1994|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGADERE, Haiti — The half-built wooden boats lining the beach here lie rotting just a few yards from the Caribbean and now serve mostly as playgrounds for the children of this tiny village.

Yet just a few months ago, these boats and hundreds like them represented so much more: They bore silent testimony to Haiti's searing troubles and the will of thousands of its people to find a better life. Ultimately, they helped to convince President Clinton that he would have to send U.S. troops to restore order and democracy to the impoverished country.

Until earlier this year, this seaside village of 500 was one of the dozens of favored departure points for Haitian refugees seeking to sail to the United States on rickety homemade wooden boats. But now that U.S. troops have landed and exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is scheduled to return to power, the people of Bagadere say they hope and believe that they will see the reverse: family and friends coming home.

Indeed, here on the central Haitian coast 50 miles from Port-au-Prince, Aristide remains a mythic figure of hope to the rural poor. His return is widely anticipated among villagers as the magical cure for the nation's ills.

And so, in remote villages like Bagadere, optimism over the U.S. presence remains untarnished by the mounting violence and breakdown of order in cities like Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien to the north.

Thanks to that presence, the people here are enjoying their first days of openly expressing their support for Aristide without fear of the wrath of the Haitian police and military. And while the town is too small and too isolated to stage its own pro-Aristide demonstrations, it is clear that rural villages like Bagadere provide the backbone for Aristide's support.

Above all, the people here said, despite a lack of jobs or food, the presence of Aristide and U.S. troops in Haiti should be enough to persuade many who have left to return home from the refugee camps at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Perhaps even some who have made it all the way to the United States may return as well, they said.

"I have family in Florida, and I think some will come back once Aristide is here again," said Bohomme Phillemon, a Bagadere villager. "I think my mother will come home from Miami. Most people here have some family in the U.S. But Aristide is the second God of Haiti, and I think some will come back."

Villager Charles Jadet, standing next to the skeleton of a boat designed to hold hundreds of Haitian refugees, added: "We need Aristide; he is the answer. Here we have no school, no medicine, no lights. He was going to bring our village electricity before he was kicked out."

Until recently, the mood was far grimmer in Bagadere, a magnet for poor Haitians from all over the country who were seeking a remote place to build or buy a raft, far from the prying eyes of the Haitian military and police in Port-au-Prince.

They would come by bus or taxi, walking in huge groups down dirt paths two or three miles in from the main coast road. To avoid paying bribes to the local police, they would shove off into the water late at night, hoping to reach the shipping lanes of the Caribbean in daylight.

But the people of Bagadere say that the flow of refugees streaming through the village all but ended when Clinton announced in late June that the United States would reopen a refugee-processing facility at Guantanamo Bay to handle a new surge in Haitians being picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy.

That was a reversal of Clinton's policy announced in May to allow Haitian refugees to be interviewed on ships after they were picked up at sea to determine whether they could be allowed to enter the United States. That policy had given Haitians an incentive to keep trying to reach the United States, but the White House policy reversal in June dashed those hopes.

The impact of Clinton's policy switch was felt in Bagadere almost immediately. "The people were here all the time, getting boats, but then when they said they would all go to Cuba, they stopped coming here," said Ulysses Chenet, another villager.

When the number of refugees dwindled, Bagadere was thrust back into isolation, with little contact with the outside world except for occasional forays by the Haitian police and paramilitary groups.

"We had to hide in the sugar cane or in the hills every time until they left," recalled Eliphet Mildor.

"Whenever you spoke out about Aristide, you ended up sleeping in the sea," added Armanz Subtil.

With the arrival of U.S. troops in Haiti, the police have vanished, as they have in many parts of Haiti. But U.S. troops have not yet arrived, and so the villagers in Bagadere and other nearby towns have been left to fend for themselves.

With limited resources, the U.S. military has kept most of its forces in Port-au-Prince and in Cap Haitien and is just now beginning to deploy significant numbers of troops into outlying cities.

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