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ARISTIDE FLEES HAITI

'It's Over!' -- but a Familiar Frenzy Remains

Hundreds of looters, from young girls to old men, move through the impoverished capital.

March 01, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — First word came as the shrill morning calls of roosters were echoing off the walls of shantytowns and villas in this still-slumbering Caribbean city Sunday.

Within minutes, there were explosions of celebratory gunfire, happy cries of "Ca y est!" -- "It's over!" -- and outbreaks of looting. In the wealthy hillside suburb of Petionville, scores of boys and young men sacked an abandoned police station, carrying away police helmets and shields, thermos bottles and battered file cabinets.

The flight into exile of Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, early Sunday under international pressure brought Haitians by the thousands into the streets to display their joy, but also to wreak violence and destruction. For some Haitians, it was an occasion for sober reflection about what the future may now bring to their impoverished and troubled nation.

"He wasn't able to finish his term," said Hugues Contin, 48, an operating room technician who lives in the Haitian capital but works in New York to earn a better wage. "And if Aristide wasn't able to do it, nobody will. The Americans better be ready to return to Haiti every two years to rescue a fallen president."

On a hot and sunny day in Port-au-Prince, mobs sacked the police headquarters and tried to drive a fire engine away from a firehouse. (They failed.) Looters by the hundreds -- from fresh-faced girls who looked no older than 5 to wizened men -- pillaged shops and scattered like beetles, stumbling over debris and dropped booty, when police struck at them with rifle butts or metal rods, or fired into the air.

Haitians have a special term for a frenzied, mindless rampage of theft and destruction -- dechoucage -- coined to describe the widespread disorders that erupted after the departure of dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986 for exile in France. That they were forced to use the word again Sunday was a bitter pill for many.

"The people are poor, and very illiterate," said Yves Torchon, 46, a businessman, as he watched scores of boys and men ransacking the two-story police headquarters in Petionville. "They don't understand what they are doing. They don't understand that it's their property and will have to be replaced. But I understand them. They have been tyrannized."

"Thank you, Aristide!" shouted one young man as he struggled to lug three filthy mattresses out of the Petionville jail. In a country where two-thirds of adults lack jobs and average daily income is less than $4, the temptation to plunder from a disgraced and fallen government was perhaps understandable, and people could be seen throughout the day in Port-au-Prince carrying propane gas cylinders, car batteries, camouflage uniforms, computers, refrigerators, bouquets of flowers, armfuls of clothing and other presumably purloined goods.

Riding atop dump trucks and pickups, or running in packs and waving leafy tree branches, Haitians of all ages thronged the streets to fete the ouster of a leader who was once popular, but who many thought evolved into a dangerous and corrupt, yet ineffectual, tyrant.

"I'm here to show I'm happy," said one demonstrator, Zo Katlens, 25. "I had to leave home and sleep elsewhere at night because the chimeres [pro-Aristide thugs] were looking for me."

On the Champs de Mars in front of Aristide's former official residence, the white-walled National Palace, some of his supporters angrily struck back by firing into crowds. On the Delmas road, chimeres reportedly burned down a supermarket and a bank, and were shooting on passing vehicles. A Texaco station was looted and torched into a smoking ruin. Columns of dense smoke also rose into the morning sky near the waterfront.

Reporters counted at least four bodies -- those of three men and that of a woman who looked to have been about 20 who was struck by a stray bullet when she went to fetch water. The dead men were said by residents to be members of pro-Aristide chimere gangs shot by police, but that could not be verified.

Police inspector general Michael V. Lucius, who said he was assuming operational command of Haiti's national police force, said he did not know how many people had been killed or wounded Sunday, but that there had been widespread damage. Lucius, who had been the chief of staff for Aristide's chief of police, said he ordered special units, as well as officers from other towns, into the capital's streets.

"There are a lot of armed men in Port-au-Prince, and we're doing all we can so peace will return," Lucius said. "The number of police is limited, and we're managing those units that we have."

Haiti's police, who had become nearly invisible during the dying days of the Aristide regime, returned in force throughout the day, reoccupying in early afternoon the Petionville station, which by then had been picked clean by looters. A curfew was also declared, and when it went into effect at 6 p.m., a tense calm seemed to have returned to much of Haiti's seaside capital.

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