South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 29, 2004

Day of horror, hope in Haiti as dawn brings Aristide's departure

By Mark Stevenson
Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Sunday dawned with a hush around Haiti's deserted National Palace, an almost tangible sense of the power vacuum as Haitians realized President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had finally gone.

It was a brief calm -- a moment of hope and celebration for Aristide's opponents -- until furious Aristide supporters unleashed their anger, shooting into the crowds and blanketing the city in flames and gunfire.

At first, there was doubt that Aristide had left.

``It is not true! The president will never leave!'' an Aristide supporter named Jean Devry said as he gripped a tiny Haitian flag and bellowed his defiance outside Aristide's office.

But eventually the truth sunk in: Aristide had left aboard a small plane in the early hours of the morning. On a downtown street, a handful of women tentatively began celebrating, waving their arms and swaying.

Among Aristide supporters, shock turned to fury.

Almost simultaneously, smoke began billowing from barricades at dozens of spots throughout the city, and streets that had previously been quiet and safe became gauntlets of brutality.

``Give me your cameras! Give me everything!'' screamed one rail-thin pro-Aristide militant known as a chimere, which mean "ghosts" in French but in Haitian Creole has come to mean angry young men or beasts. He nervously waved a chrome revolver at a car full of journalists stopped at a barricade of burning tires and car parts.

Released with a warning ``get out of here, get all foreigners out of here!'' -- the car sped down a side street, turned and was stopped again, and robbed again, at another barricade.

Pickup trucks full of chimeres -- sometimes a dozen per vehicle -- sprayed streets almost randomly with gunfire. Rocks rattled off journalists' cars as they raced past angry throngs.

Within an hour, the maze of Port-au-Prince's filthy, narrow streets had become a deathtrap.

On the main John Brown Boulevard, black-clad men with shotguns left behind the bullet-riddled bodies of three men sprawled inside an SUV.

Armed men blocked streets and provided cover as streams of people kicked in the doors of banks and stores, smashing security gates with rocks or pipes. They looted canned food, appliances, furniture.

Mobs attacked and looted police stations and government ministries until officers wearing black or camouflage flack jackets roared up in trucks and opened fire.

By noon, the chimeres were shooting to kill. Gunfire -- sometimes sustained bursts of automatic weapons, sometimes the more eery single reports -- echoed over the city.

Bodies were seen in several neighborhoods.

By mid-afternoon, anti-Aristide forces began to regroup. As the chimeres began retreating from their barricades in the face of police patrols, some residents apparently began organizing posses to hunt down thugs who had terrorized them for years.

One pickup truck full of well-dressed young men was seen patrolling a street in one of the city's better neighborhoods, with the body of a man -- apparently a chimere -- lying in the back.

At the height of the violence, Haiti's new president, Boniface Alexandre, a supreme court justice who has offered to remain in the post in an interim basis -- pleaded for Haitians to stop the bloodshed.

``Nobody should take justice into their own hands,'' Alexandre said.

Yvon Neptune, the prime minister under Aristide who is also staying on temporarily, called on police ``to continue doing their duty'' even though that often mean struggling to retake their own station houses.

The United States called on Haitians to remain in their homes and stop the violence. ``I make a solemn appeal to all the people of Haiti to stop the violence,'' said U.S. Ambassador James Foley.

The violence subsided in the late afternoon as police stepped up their patrols. But in the Aristide stronghold of Lasaline, a garbage-strewn slum on the outskirts of the city, the president's supporters continued to seethe over his ouster.

``It's a violation of our constitution,'' said James Voltaire, 28, a fervent Aristide supporter. ``We had a president who was elected for five years. Whoever the next president will be will be a losing situation.''

Copyright © 2004