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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 258 - August 1994

Return of the Tonton Macoutes
The people of Haiti are at the mercy of a murderous military regime.
The UN looked on. Charles Arthur saw it happen.

From August to October last year I was in Haiti working for the UN Civilian Mission. Along with 200 or so other 'observers' my job was to monitor the human-rights situation during the implementation of a UN-brokered plan for the return from exile of the Haitian President Aristide. Although I already knew quite a bit about Haiti nothing could prepare me for what was to come.

In the two years since the military coup against Aristide, who had polled 67 per cent of the vote in the country's first free election, Haiti had become what Amnesty International termed 'a human-rights tragedy'. The military had set out to destroy the network of peasant unions, progressive Catholic groups, student and labour unions and neighbourhood associations which had given voice to the demands of Haiti's poor majority. These self-help groups that made up Aristide's embryonic Lavalas movement were suffering dreadful repression. Over 3,000 people had been killed, thousands more had been detained, beaten and tortured. Conservative estimates put the numbers of internally displaced at 250,000.

When I started work at the observers' Port-au-Prince office these statistics were brought to life by the graphic testimonies of the Haitians who queued up to report their experiences. Individually and in groups they told of missing or imprisoned relatives, beatings and death threats, months spent in hiding and living in fear. Many had fled from the countryside where the military had reinstalled the section chiefs who ran their communities like personal fiefdoms, levying taxes, extorting money and administering beatings to anyone who crossed them. Others were from the densely-packed slums of Port-au-Prince where armed attachés (previously notorious as the Tonton Macoutes) waited, watched and listened for signs of dissent.

These people, whose desperation drove them to risk being seen entering or leaving our office, wanted and expected help. Restricted by our mandate to compiling reports, all we could offer was sympathy.

Incredibly, in this atmosphere the UN suspended economic sanctions. Within days the military carried out the highly symbolic assassination of Antoine Izmery, an outspoken supporter of Aristide who had financed his successful election campaign. At Izmery's funeral a week later, as I sat in a clearly-marked UN jeep outside the church, a woman shouted 'useless!' at us from a passing car.

Over the next few weeks the number of killings and disappearances in Port-au-Prince increased. The nights were punctuated by regular bursts of gunfire. The observers spent more time following up sightings of dead bodies than interviewing those still living. We would find at least one a day, usually in the streets of the slum areas like Cité Soleil, La Saline and Bel Aire.

Coinciding with this wave of terror a new right-wing organiz-ation, claiming the nationalist legacy of the Duvalier dictatorship, emerged. They called themselves the Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress but became better known by their acronym FRAPH. They were a motley grouping of former Tonton Macoutes, ex-army officers and de facto government employees who saw their sinecures threatened by Aristide's impending return.

FRAPH ordered a 'general strike' in protest at foreign intervention in Haiti. On the morning of the 'strike' plainclothes gunmen could be seen getting out of police vehicles, chasing stall-holders out of the city's markets and threatening taxi drivers with their pistols. By midmorning the normally bustling streets were deserted, except for the military, the foreign press and the UN observers. Along the road to Cité Soleil I saw a teenage boy on a moped stopped by a carload of attachés. They forced him into the back of their car and then threw his moped in on top of him. With strict orders not to leave our jeep we could only sit and watch as they prepared to drive off. Only the intervention of an Italian photographer secured the boy's release and gave him the chance to dash for safety in the labyrinth of Cité Soleil streets.

The week that followed was a blur of events. A crowd of gun-toting attachés prevented a US ship carrying the first contingent of a UN assistance mission from docking at Port-au-Prince harbour; the newly-appointed Justice Minister was riddled with bullets as he left work; the army leader General Cedras refused to resign as previously agreed; the entire UN observer mission was evacuated to the Dominican Republic. Aristide could not return, the UN reimposed limited sanctions and Haiti was left to the military and FRAPH.

Having organized and funded the election process that brought Aristide to power the UN had a moral obligation to defend the result. Yet for the best part of two years the organization turned its back, refusing to consider mandatory economic sanctions. Management of the crisis was subcontracted out to the Organization of American States, a toothless regional body dominated by the US. When the UN finally got involved it forced Aristide into an agreement that relied on the goodwill of the murderous Haitian military.

All meetings are now forbidden unless sanctioned by the military. There are even reports of typing classes being banned. Rape, previously uncommon in Haiti, has become one of the main tools of political repression. A Haitian women's group reported over 40 rapes in poor neighbourhoods during one night in March.

By mid-May the US Coast Guard reported that it had picked up and returned some 1,623 people to Haiti so far this year, more than the 1,530 returned during all of 1993. The Clinton administration announced a suspension of these forcible repatriations and is now processing the refugees' applications for political asylum. Thousands of other refugees are making their way to the Bahamas and to the British-owned Turks and Caicos Islands.

As I was leaving Haiti one man told me: 'We are not stupid. We know now that the UN is just playing games with us.' The whole episode is a devastating betrayal of the Haitian people.

Charles Arthur works with the Haiti Support Campaign, Trinity Church, Hodford Road, London NW11 8NG, phone and fax (81) 201 9878, haitisupport.gn.apc.org/ from whom further information and suggestions for urgent action can be obtained.

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