The Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2004; Page A18

Forces Close In on Key Haitian City

Anti-Government Group Has Former Tourist Town of Cap-Haitien in Its Sights

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti, Feb. 14 -- Members of an armed anti-government group continued hit-and-run attacks in northern Haiti on Saturday as this faded city on the Caribbean Sea suffered the effects of more than a week without power.

Insurgents hoping to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide attacked the police station in the mountain village of Ste. Suzanne, 20 miles southeast of Cap-Haitien, which government officials say is an important rebel objective. The armed group now controls several small towns south of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, and is using them as staging grounds for new attacks.

Cap-Haitien has become a focus of Haiti's crisis since Feb. 5, when the main armed opposition group drove police and government officials from Gonaives, a city about 30 miles south of here. Gonaives is an important crossroads in a country with few highways, and its seizure by the rebels has essentially cut the country in half.

The direst consequence has been the end of delivery of diesel fuel to Cap-Haitien, a city of 500,000 people. At Justinien Hospital, a compound of decrepit buildings that relies on diesel for its power, a group of young interns described the city's descent into near chaos during a tour of the maternity ward and sweltering recovery room.

Gunfire has rung out in the empty streets near the hospital for a week, most of it from pro-Aristide groups trying to keep the city from falling into opposition hands. As many as eight gunshot victims have been brought in.

Patients needing surgery have been forced to bring black-market fuel to the hospital to power the generator during operations. A woman underwent a Caesarean section Saturday after her family supplied 10 gallons of fuel, which sells on the black market for more than twice the price of a week ago. Women in labor and gunshot victims have been turned away, many likely to die, doctors said.

"If something happens to [the patients], the chimère will come for us," said Farah Momprevil, a 27-year-old intern, using a term for the pro-Aristide groups, an allusion to the chimera, a mythological fire-breathing beast. "Even if a delivery looks like it will go well, we can't take a chance in case something goes wrong."

The despair at the hospital highlights the broad misery Haitians are experiencing as an armed insurrection, active only in pockets of the country, disrupts the lives of people who were already desperately poor.

Once the jewel of Haiti's bygone tourism era, Cap-Haitien is now an emblem of a failed state. Rotting piles of trash line the streets, pigs and dogs rooting in them. Children carry heavy plastic jugs from public wells, the only source of potable water, to roadside shacks.

At the Esso gas station, young men crouch over jugs of pink fuel drawn from large barrels. The gasoline was stockpiled before the current crisis and is now selling at a premium rate of $5 a gallon. Business is brisk, and supplies were not expected to last the day.

Myrto Julien, the government's appointed governor of the northern district, said he expected fuel shortages to ease Sunday with the arrival of a tanker carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel. The sea is the only route to Cap-Haitien since anti-government groups blocked the roads to the city from Port-au-Prince, the capital 100 miles south of here, and from the Dominican Republic.

Julien said more than 60 men in military uniforms, traveling in a convoy of trucks, a trailer and a motorcycle, began advancing on the city in the afternoon of Feb. 7. He said the three towns they struck along the way, burning police stations, mayors' homes and private houses, were only steps toward the objective of taking Cap-Haitien. But he said the group had been turned away.

"They have heavy weapons, they have a huge logistics support," Julien said of the armed anti-government groups. "They have not only guns, but food, gas, uniforms like the U.S. Army ones, communications equipment. This equipment is not sold in flea markets."

Samson Alce, a 33-year-old photographer from Dondon, opened his front door last Saturday in the midst of a gun battle for control of the village south of here. A bullet, fired by a group of men passing in masks, entered his stomach. His family rushed him to the hospital, unconscious, and has supplied fuel for his surgery.

"There is a daily struggle right now, so I can't say who is in charge" of Dondon, said Phito Alce, Samson's brother. "All I know is that these guys are regrouping, and when they do they will make a new push into the city. If we had a choice, we would go elsewhere."

© 2004