The Washington Post
Friday, March 19, 2004; Page C01

Airlift Aristide: A Flight to Exile

Stranded in Africa, Haiti's Ousted Leader Inspires Friends to Dash to His Rescue

By Peter Eisner
Washington Post Foreign Service

BANGUI, Central African Republic

Descending through the clouds from 45,000 feet over the Ubangi River, it was a bit late to be raising concerns about the danger ahead of us en route to pick up ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But some of the participants in the mission, whose convivial laughter had been contagious as we flew 6,638 miles through the night from Miami to the heart of Africa, were now talking about bad omens, mosquitoes and the possibility that we could be imprisoned or worse.

"We cannot discount the danger that we could be killed," said one of the members of the delegation on the way to fetch Aristide from what appeared to be palace arrest. "That's why we decided to have along journalists as insurance."

There were two reporters aboard the flight that flew Aristide this week to Jamaica, where he plans to spend the next several months, perhaps strategizing his next steps toward a potential return to power. One was Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now," a program on public radio and public access television. The other was me.

"What dangers?" I asked.

"Well, who knows to what ends the United States will go to keep Aristide from returning home?" said Ira Kurzban, Aristide's lawyer, also on board and responsible for chartering the flight. But death at the hands of the U.S. government seemed unlikely. There were more down-to-earth concerns.

"I've also been told that there's a highly lethal strain of malaria in the Central African Republic," said Randall Robinson, former president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington lobbying and research group. "It can kill."

The travelers hardly had time to pack a change of clothes, let alone get a supply of insect repellent, before racing to Miami for this most unusual rescue mission -- if indeed it was a rescue mission.

While it was apparent that Aristide was in some form of custody in the Central African Republic, the exact terms of his arrival there and his status were not clear when we arrived, and are not clear even now.

The U.S. government said Aristide had resigned on Feb. 29, but Aristide said he had not. Luis Moreno, second in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, had described exchanging pleasantries with Aristide and then bidding him farewell at the airport. Aristide had described being kidnapped, surrounded by armed guards and obliged to board a U.S. plane with no idea where the Americans were taking him.

He found himself deposited in the Central African Republic, a country of just more than 3 million, slightly smaller in area than Texas, in the middle of the continent. It is the former demesne of self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the late despot who was accused of cannibalism and of throwing his political opponents to the crocodiles.

For many hours, the Gulfstream jet had been an insulating cocoon for the mission, led by Robinson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), an outspoken critic of Bush administration policy toward Haiti. Also aboard were her husband, Sidney Williams, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas; Kurzban; and a Jamaican legislator, Sharon Hays Webster.

We'd flown from Miami with fueling stops in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and Dakar, Senegal, in the luxury of a 12-seat jet that usually carried rock bands and movie stars. Janet Jackson had been a recent passenger, said the steward, noting that it was a few weeks before she bared her breast at the Super Bowl.

"We're discreet, we don't like to talk about our guests," said the steward, Tim, declining to give details or even his last name as he served a round of refreshments and sandwiches from a fancy shop in South Beach. "But we tend to cater to the high-roller crowd."

Kurzban preferred not to say exactly who was paying for rental of the aircraft -- at $100,000 a day plus the considerable expense of refueling at between $8,000 and $12,000 per fill-up. "I'm paying for part of it, and there are two donors who wouldn't want their names known," he said.

Now, wheeling down past thunderheads toward an uncertain reception in the Central African Republic, the committee discussed a negotiating strategy while the plane made a reconnoitering pass over the landing strip. The sun disappeared and the African night descended suddenly, with no more than a moment of dusk.

"Should we demand to see Aristide right away?" someone asked as we touched down. The runway lights looked like bare 60-watt bulbs strung along with tin cans for covers. "No, I think we should be very careful not to insult anyone," said another delegation member.

Fifteen hours 28 minutes after we'd left Miami, the plane taxied to a stop across from a VIP lounge where Foreign Minister Charles Wenezoui was waiting. "We are very happy to be here," Waters told the foreign minister. "When can we see your president and President Aristide?"

No problem, the foreign minister said.

We piled into a convoy of pickup trucks and cars and headed up the airport road to the capital, surrounded by soldiers in army fatigues and others wearing jeans and T-shirts, all toting automatic weapons. Shanty-style kiosks and bar fronts lined both sides of the road, giving us a fleeting glance of life on Sunday night in Bangui. Women wearing colorful print dresses stood about chatting, men sat drinking.

One man, tall and painfully thin, watched the cars pass by, his legs and arms sprawling. My immediate thought was AIDS, which is ravaging this and other African states. Central African Republic is one of the world's poorest countries. According to the United Nations, 14 percent of the nation's children are malnourished.

The road passed in front of the University of Bangui, a whitewashed building surrounded by cement-block housing, and then through the city center of commerce and banking, and finally to the black iron gates of the Palace of the Renaissance, once known simply as Bokassa's palace, where witnesses once reported seeing dismembered human bodies stored in freezers. The palace is opulent by local standards, with sculpted gardens set amid three modern two-story whitewashed structures that were like glowing white cubes. We were taken up a flight of stairs and along a hallway, where Aristide and his wife were waiting at a doorway.

Aristide was composed and impeccably dressed, wearing a black suit, maroon-striped tie and starched white shirt. He said it was the same clothing he wore two weeks earlier when flown into exile. His wife, Mildred, wearing pearl earrings and a lime-green suit, spoke with a pronounced New York accent. "I'm from the Bronx," she said. "A Yankee fan, of course."

The Aristides embraced their friends and sat down for a brief and awkward conversation with the foreign minister. "We would like to meet with your president right away," Waters said, seconded by the others. "We would like to greet him and then we must ask to leave this evening with President Aristide."

"The president is very busy tonight," the foreign minister said. "I'm not sure he will be able to see you. He must travel 100 kilometers from here. He has many meetings. But I will try to contact him."

It was unlikely that Francois Bozize, the president of the Central African Republic, had anything more interesting to do than deal with the situation that had placed his country on the front pages of world newspapers. Members of the delegation thought it likely that Bozize was stalling for time, and incidentally wanted them to give him a propaganda boost by attending a parade the following morning that would commemorate the first anniversary of his insurgent coup. Waters and Robinson wanted no part of that.

The journalists, dismissed while strategizing continued behind closed doors, sat with service personnel at the palace. A waiter named Zonoh Clement stood out on the veranda, pointing toward the gardens. "This all was built by Bokassa," he said sternly. "That is where he kept the prisoners. . . . We have now been liberated" from all of that.

Shortly we learned that President Bozize, despite the demands of a heavy schedule, had been gracious enough to break free from his busy evening engagements.

Aristide and the delegation met twice with Bozize in the central palace in the course of six or seven hours of negotiations and maneuvering and gamesmanship. No one said a threatening word, everyone smiled, and the soldiers stood about, cradling their weapons.

Aristide said his status here had never been clear, and he did not try to leave on his own. "I went twice to Mass and once drove around, but I could not just walk through the gate." First, there was the question of security. Second, "I had too much respect for the president to embarrass him," Aristide said.

Finally, Aristide said, Bozize told him that he needed to consult with officials of the United States and France, among others. "We will soon see whether I am a prisoner or not," he said as he emerged from the meeting.

Just after midnight, the group was summoned before the president. They entered the central wing of the palace through a marble entryway and walked around an intricate hand-carved wooden balustrade to the president's reception room.

Bozize brought along parting gifts for Aristide, a sign that the Haitian was free to go. Aristide said he had learned a phrase in Sango, the national language, and tried it out on his host: "My brother, I love you well." Bozize smiled and said farewell.

Aristide and the committee boarded the Gulfstream and departed at 2 a.m. local time, about 7½ hours after we had arrived.

Aristide showed no emotion as the plane took off, but the entourage cheered and toasted the departure. Robinson drew his own conclusion from the sequence of events and consultations: "It appears to us that while the Central African Republic was the jailer, the United States was the warden."

The ousted Haitian president slept easily during the 17-hour trip to Kingston, Jamaica, which included fueling stops in Dakar, the Cape Verde islands and Barbados. "I never have trouble sleeping on planes," he said.

During an interview he was enigmatic, especially when asked about his plans. Did he plan to go back to Haiti?

"I always pay attention to the voice of the Haitian people. When I listen to the voice, I will know what to do," he replied.

And he referred twice to Toussaint L'Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence. "By arresting me, you cut the tree of freedom. But the roots are deep and strong," Aristide said, in what sounded like an indication that he still would be involved in Haitian politics.

He smiled broadly when the plane reached Jamaica.

"He's almost crying," one of his friends said, surprised to see a show of emotion.

"We're here. It's unbelievable, but true," said Aristide.

© 2004