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Marines in Haiti Greeted by Smiles, Glares

Most locals seem uncertain whether the new arrivals are a blessing or a bane, say troops. A serviceman is wounded in the capital.

March 16, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Time Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — From inside an armored scout vehicle of the U.S. Marine Corps, here's how Haiti looks: People wave as you rumble by or flash obscene gestures. Sometimes they smile or salute; on occasion they shoot.

But mostly, Haitians stand silent and impassive, apparently still uncertain whether your presence is a blessing or a bane.

"In some neighborhoods, they don't know what to think of us, why a big eight-wheel vehicle is rolling in front of their house," said 2nd Lt. George Gordy, a platoon leader. Gordy, 26, said that in Port-au-Prince's most impoverished areas, he sometimes catches hostile vibes he recognizes from his childhood in inner-city Philadelphia -- "like when you roll on somebody's else's turf."

For a little over two weeks, after the resignation and departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Marines have been deployed in Haiti's capital, on an expanded mission that now includes keeping Haitians from killing one another and confiscating the huge arsenal of firearms believed to be in private hands. Last weekend, America's highest-ranking military officer dropped by for a visit and voiced "immense appreciation" for what 1,700 Marines and other U.S. servicemen and women are doing here.

"The United States of America has called upon their service to help the people of this country, and they are serving extremely well," said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Marines have come under fire at least a half-dozen times and suffered their first casualty Sunday night. Pfc. Howard W. Hamilton, a 20-year-old rifleman from Murfreesboro, Tenn., was wounded by unknown gunmen who opened fire on a Marine patrol in Bel Air, a pro-Aristide stronghold in the capital where armed gangs still seem to reign. Hamilton, struck in the left arm, was airlifted to a hospital in Miami.

"That shooting will only increase our resolve to do what has to be done," said Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman, who took command of the four-nation task force in Haiti on Monday. Pentagon officials say the Bush administration's hope is that within 90 days, the 2,690-strong interim force of Americans, French, Chileans and Canadians will be replaced by blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers.

For the 20 Marines and one Navy medical corpsman patrolling in three diesel-powered light armored vehicles under Gordy's command, serving in Haiti has meant checking that roads on old maps still exist, reconnoitering sites that could be used by the Marines and other foreign troops, clearing roads of blockades and debris, stopping to frisk Haitians who might be carrying firearms, and using a digital camera to photograph buildings where gunfire has been spotted.

It is hot, dusty, sometimes frazzling work, conducted in the ungainly vehicles known to the Marines as "pigs."

Cpl. Eric Gomez, 21, of Corpus Christi, Texas, faces backward from a hatch, guarding the vehicle's rear and flanks with a marksman's rifle. Gomez, who was part of the U.S. invasion force in Iraq that raced north last year to Tikrit, said Haiti is totally different.

"This is a humanitarian action," said the 3 1/2-year veteran of the Marines. "There's not a distinct enemy here."

But as Gomez gazes through his sunglasses on roadside crowds in Port-au-Prince or scans drivers and passengers of passing vehicles, he senses that the public hasn't yet decided whether the appearance of heavily armed newcomers in camouflage uniforms, Kevlar helmets and body armor is a good thing.

"People aren't really happy, they aren't really hostile," Gomez said. "They're just kind of going about their daily routine."

During a recent morning patrol north of the airport, Staff Sgt. John Kennedy, a light armored vehicle commander, said he thought locals were warming to the Marines. "Now a lot more waves are coming," said Kennedy, 29, from Junction City, Ohio. But at one point, there was the pop-pop of small arms fire, and he ordered a reporter and photographer along for the ride to duck down inside a hatch.

"Sounded like 9-millimeter rounds in the distance," Kennedy said later. "But they don't seem like they were directed at us." Otherwise, the sergeant said, there would have been audible "pings" as bullets struck the vehicle's steel hide.

To show their support, Haiti's new interim president and prime minister attended Monday's ceremony installing Coleman as commander of the interim peacekeeping force, known as Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti. Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said the Marines and other foreigners had not come to occupy Haiti, but to help it, and "Haitians will never forget this gesture."

Nevertheless, longtime residents of Haiti say the reception given U.S. forces is lukewarm, even chilly, compared with the welcome the Marines and Army troops received when they landed in 1994 to restore the democratically elected Aristide to power after a putsch.

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