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U.S. Troops Take Hands-On Tack in Haiti's North


GRANDE RIVIERE DU NORD, Haiti — The man with a reputation for murder and two-bit shakedowns on behalf of Haiti's military regime lay in a fetal position on a banana-bark mat on the floor of the five-cell army prison. Hauled in by crowds celebrating the future return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he grimaced in pain from a hideous gunshot wound.

Next door, Paul Jacob, a member of the political movement that supports Aristide, grasped the bars on a tiny window in the cell where he stood accused of shooting a man and refusing to give up his weapons.

And in between Haiti's two extremes stood the U.S. Special Forces, sorting through the complicated confusion of Haitian politics and revenge.

But for a change, these Haitian enemies would not be allowed to kill each other: The wounded man, a notorious attache , was whisked off for medical treatment and is under arrest. Jacob, after his weapons were captured, would be freed.

Here in this center of resistance to the first American occupation of Haiti 80 years ago, U.S. troops have had an unexpected impact that has begun to transform parts of the northern countryside. They have taken over more than a dozen towns, rounded up bad guys and unleashed a buoyant optimism among people who lived for years under brutal repression.

"The north was the cradle of Haitian civilization, and its people were very proud. But that pride was crumpled, crushed and stamped out by dictatorship," said Grande Riviere's Roman Catholic priest, Father Joachin Roboam Anantua. "Now the people see there is hope, there is a new wind blowing. They feel things are going to change."

In contrast to their strategy in the capital, Port-au-Prince, the U.S. military in northern Haiti from the start has assumed a police role, as local military and civilian authority evaporated. Especially through Special Forces teams that fanned out through the countryside, GIs have been highly visible, on the ground and in the streets; they have taken a hands-on approach.

The mission in this part of rural Haiti has focused on hearts and minds--winning over the trust of the people here by filling in the void left by the hasty flight of local authorities.

With anarchy always looming on the horizon, the Special Forces have found themselves engaged in everything from arresting criminals to settling disputes and installing small-town mayors who were in hiding.

The results, so far, have been mixed, but they contrast sharply with the chaos the capital has seen in the last three weeks.

While demonstrators were being gunned down and killed in Port-au-Prince, Haitians in town after town in this region marched freely.

Where the most bitter complaint in the capital was about the Americans' failure to protect pro-Aristide Haitians, here the U.S. presence has given new confidence to opponents of the regime.

Conditions have improved somewhat in Port-au-Prince. But at least for the time being, Haiti has become two countries--the north, showing some promise, and the capital, which is still very much in flux.

"Northern Haiti is the success story compared to Port-au-Prince," said a non-American foreign military expert close to the occupation mission. "The Americans have come in here and laid a good foundation. I think this area may be the testing ground for tactics that will be used later."

There are obvious differences that make the mission in the north easier, such as the size and remoteness of the towns involved. Cap Haitien, for example, Haiti's second-largest city and the metropolis of the north, has a population of only 55,000 or so. On the other hand, Port-au-Prince, population 800,000 or so, is where the powerful regime of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and its wealthy backers are based.

And it clearly eased the Americans' mission when U.S. Marines on Sept. 24 shot and killed 10 Haitian policemen in Cap Haitien. The skirmish sent hundreds of Haitian police, army officers and paramilitary attaches running for the hills and probably the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Despite about 2,000 U.S. Army troops in the northern theater, tensions have by no means subsided. Some parts of the north have yet to see a GI--and may not want to. As the American intervention in Somalia showed, pacifying the less densely populated countryside can be a futile exercise if the country's major city is in havoc.

It was on the northern part of the island that the 16th-Century Spanish and later the French first arrived in search of gold and riches. An uprising by slaves near Cap Haitien in 1791 launched Haiti's movement to gain independence from France.

Founded during the French colonization, Grande Riviere du Nord, an almost picturesque town in almost lush hills covered with coffee trees, was a stronghold of the Haitian guerrilla resistance, known as the cacos , during the first part of the century. The caco guerrillas fought U.S. armed forces who occupied Haiti in 1915, and Grande Riviere came under attack numerous times.

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