GONAIVES, Haiti — The armed uprising in this notoriously rebellious city consists of a scruffy band of about 100 young men with antiquated weapons and a few thousand townspeople with knives and machetes.
But this community, fiercely loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide until September, is suddenly striking fear in the hearts of Haitians. Reports suggest that two senior figures from the country's former dictatorship and military junta have returned from exile to try to depose Aristide.
Guy Philippe, who fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic in late 2000 after Aristide's government accused him of plotting a coup, and Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a former death-squad commander during the last days of dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, have returned to northern Haiti, said Wynter Etienne, a rebel leader.
The former regime figures and about a dozen other militants reportedly accompanying them were not in the city this weekend, Etienne said. But Associated Press quoted unnamed witnesses attesting to their presence. Their return would provide the government in Port-au-Prince with fresh incentive to attack and take back this city.
If true, the return of Philippe and Chamblain would highlight the chameleon-like nature of Haiti's armed rebels. Chamblain was deputy commander of the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, which terrorized Aristide supporters after the 1991 military coup that ousted him during his first presidency. Dozens of Gonaives supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas Party were killed by the junta's hit squads. The rebels say those killings are bygones.
"Even if they killed your people before, if someone comes to your side in a crisis you have to work with them," said Buter Metayer, another rebel leader in Gonaives. This port city also was the place where rebellious slaves made their 1804 declaration of independence and where a revolt took off in the 1980s, eventually driving Duvalier into exile.
Unrest here began five months ago when Metayer's brother, Amiot, was slain, apparently by a Lavalas assassin. Members of Amiot Metayer's so-called Cannibal Army then turned against Aristide, who had reportedly armed the gang four years ago to attack political opponents.
Angry public workers went on strike, shutting schools, hospitals and port services. Riots escalated into rebellion Feb. 5, when angry gunmen attacked police stations and the mayor's office, wresting control of the symbols of power. That deadly clash and another provoked by a failed government effort to retake the city have ravaged Gonaives and cut off supplies and communications between the capital and Cap Haitien, the second-largest city.
Three miles of National Highway No. 1 running the length of Gonaives are strewn with burning debris. Shattered glass from lootings and vandalism sparkles on the soot-covered asphalt. Charred gas pumps and bullet-riddled shop fronts testify to the wanton destruction. Half the population of 200,000 has fled.
Despite the violence and disruptions, the people of Gonaives -- at least most of the male population -- profess support for the armed uprising against Aristide and Lavalas, vowing to defeat any attempt by the government to starve or shoot them into submission.
"We're not afraid of anything. Whatever happens, happens," said Michlet Joseph, a 32-year-old math teacher who, like other public employees here, hasn't been to work since Metayer's mutilated body turned up Sept. 22 on a nearby road.
Just as they chanted platitudes about Aristide when he paid them to be his local enforcers, Cannibal Army members -- now calling themselves the Artibonite Resistance Front -- and their backers recite denunciations of the president. Graffiti that earlier read "Viv Titid!" -- a Creole diminutive for "Long Live Aristide" -- have been altered by spray-painting over the first word and scribbling "Abas" in its place, to read "Down With Aristide."
"Everywhere Aristide goes he commits crimes. He kills babies," fumed Robert Legrande, a 34-year-old woodworker, apparently referring to a government raid here in November that killed a 6-week-old infant. "We will block the city until he leaves. We don't care how bad it gets. We'd rather live in misery than counting the corpses left by Aristide."
Some women seem weary of the confrontation. "Everyone is leaving town. You can't sell anything in the market. There's no work. There's no farming. You can't send your kids to school," lamented Rosann Dalsin.
In Port-au-Prince, authorities confirmed that they would move to retake Gonaives but say they would wait to do it with minimal bloodshed.
"Our concern is for the population taken hostage by the armed groups," Prime Minister Yvon Neptune said, when asked if the government planned to storm Gonaives to restore order.
Neptune echoed aid agencies' warnings that isolated areas beyond Gonaives are short of food and gasoline.