The New York Times
March 8, 2004

In Rebel City, Guns Are Power and No One Wants to Let Go

By LYDIA POLGREEN
 
ONAÏVES, Haiti, March 6 The unofficial chief of police in this city, the birthplace of the uprising that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is a hot-tempered young man named Wilfort Ferdinand, also known as T-Will.

He spends his evenings drinking local rum with his deputies and girlfriends at the bar of a local hotel, a Haitian Secret Service badge dangling from his neck. He spends his days policing the city's streets, his lieutenant Billy Augustin by his side. Until eight months ago, Mr. Augustin, 23, lived in Miami and worked as a clerk in a Target store. Now he carries a six-shooter revolver and commands a small posse of men.

Though Guy Philippe, leader of the rebel army to which Mr. Ferdinand belongs, has promised American authorities that his men will disarm, Mr. Ferdinand has no plans to put down the 9-millimeter handgun hanging loosely from his unclasped shoulder holster anytime soon.

"We will put down our guns," said Mr. Ferdinand, 27, his cherubic face ringed with tight curls. "But the chimères have to lay down their guns first," he continued, referring to pro-Aristide militants. "I can't put down my gun now. The people will be disappointed. I have to protect the people from the chimères."

Disarming the thousands of men on both sides of the conflict that has roiled Haiti for the past month is a daunting and crucial task. The nation is awash in weapons, many held by men who nurse deep grudges.

When Mr. Aristide dissolved the Haitian Army in 1995, there was no mass disarmament of combatants soldiers were simply sent home and allowed to keep their weapons. The abrupt dismissals, without plans for alternative employment, so angered the former soldiers that many joined the rebel army that sought to overthrow Mr. Aristide. With just a small, ineffective police force, Mr. Aristide relied on armed gangs of slum youths to serve as a paramilitary force to protect his interests.

Both sides are tied to drug trafficking in a country that is a way station for Colombian cocaine bound for the United States, and those connections have helped put even more guns in the hands of street toughs.

In the mayhem that swept the nation last month, the groups stood arrayed against each other, both well armed and bent on violence. Despite Mr. Aristide's departure, the violence has not ceased.

Here in Gonaïves, streets have quieted. Banks have reopened, shoppers crowd markets and schools could reopen as early as Monday.

But the city is far from pacified. Many rebel soldiers here are members of the Cannibal Army, a gang once loyal to Mr. Aristide but now turned against him. Conscious of their city's long history of fomenting violent revolution, the rebels are reluctant to give up their arms.

It was in Gonaïves that Haiti's slave soldiers declared their nation free from imperial France in 1804, and it was here that an uprising against the brutal dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier forced him into exile in 1986.

Gonaïves once again has taken its place in the nation's troubled history, which includes more than 30 coups and a long line of wars and tyrannical leaders. The final phase of the uprising against Mr. Aristide began here on Feb. 5, when the Cannibal Army attacked the police station, burning it to the ground and killing several police officers.

Wynter Étienne, a rebel leader in Gonaïves, said citizens' committees were clearing the streets of barricades and trying to restart municipal services. He said his men had put aside their weapons for now but had not handed them over to the United States or any other authority.

"As we promised, we have laid down our guns," he said. "But when you say you lay down your arms you really have to lay them down in a place where if needed they could be taken up again by the soldiers."