Detours on the Road to Democracy
By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
CAP-HAITIEN -- We spotted the smoke from the first roadblock about 4:30 p.m.
We were approaching the village of Trou du Nord on the main washboard
road between Cap-Haitien and the Dominican border. The acrid soot from
rubber billowed above the stalled anthill of Haitian traffic -- trucks overflowing with homebound workers, market women sidesaddle on donkeys, cane field laborers,
machetes in hand.
"Why are they burning tires?" asked Roberta, photographing the three truck Michelins aflame across the two-lane road.
"It's a political warning," I said. "In the days before Aristide took power, informers against him were 'necklaced' with a gasoline-soaked tire and burned alive."
"I doubt if it's that serious," said Pat, a Nebraska-born grandmother
who has worked for six years in Haiti as a medical missionary. "Necklacing
is actually pretty
rare. Roadblocks like this are a fairly frequent form of protest. It may be about something local, like a truck hitting a child."
"What will happen if they get hold of the driver?" Roberta said.
"They'll kill him," said Clark, our navigator and back-country guide.
He has a deep and abiding love for Haiti and its people and has worked
grotesquely beautiful, fascinating land off and on for 20 years. But he has few illusions about how bad things can get.
Haiti is always at least surreal. Life goes on with incredible spirit
amid incredible poverty. Traffic continues to flow on impassable roads.
Beauty blooms with an
almost religious insistence in the eeriest and most brooding of landscapes. The social apocalypse always about to happen appears magically suspended by the power
of mangoes, voodoo and flamboyant trees.
The barricade was flaming with menace in Trou du Nord, but the roadside
crowds nearby didn't look menacing or even angry -- just wary. Most were
or drinks or waiting for some sort of ride.
Clark steered Pat's pickup onto a tiny side street barely wide enough
for us and one oncoming bicycle. After a one-block detour, we bumped back
onto the main
road and figured we had dodged the crisis.
A few miles on, near Limonade, we met another roadblock. This time there
was no way around. The shoulder fell away on either side, and skull-size
rocks and bed
frames had been piled on the pavement. There were fewer people around, but one of them, a young man in his early twenties in a gray T-shirt, appeared highly
A slightly older man in a white shirt was trying to calm him down and
move enough rocks to open one lane. They argued about whether to let the
SUV ahead of us
through. White Shirt reached to move a stone.
"Get as close as you can so we can follow that car through," said Pat.
But Gray Shirt pushed the stone back in place, and there we were, four
blancs in an
air-conditioned four-door pickup,immobilized as the roadside audience of desperately poor Haitian onlookers slowly grew.
The sense of unease wasn't racial. Whites in Haiti typically meet little
hostility, far less, for example, than in a place like Nassau. They are
usually treated as a
politically and socially benign economic blessing, typically with shy courtesy or opportunistic eagerness. The word "blanc" in Creole means "non-Haitian," white or
black, and the child who shouts "Blanc!" when he sees you does so in the same tone he might use for anything unusual, like maybe a frigate bird. Or a two-headed
But the economic circumstances of even the humblest blanc are so far
above the desperation conquered daily by the average Haitian that any prolonged
with a crowd can be unsettling. Luckily Pat and Clark spoke Creole, and, with her French, Spanish and Portuguese, Roberta could usually understand it.
"Why don't we ask what this is all about?" I said.
"It's better to wait until we see someone we know," Clark said. "If they see we're patient, they'll eventually let us through."
He seemed to be right. After a few minutes White Shirt convinced Gray Shirt that we weren't part of the problem, and they moved a big rock and let us through.
"Merci, monsieur," we called cheerfully. But Gray Shirt looked back expressionless.
We'd spent most of the day surveying archaeological sites on Haiti's
northern plain near the Dominican border and had seen and heard no hint
of trouble. Nor could
we glean anything from Haiti's normally gossipy radio stations. So Clark decided a pit stop at a nearby mission station might be in order. The two women returned
with a report that the bridge into Cap-Haitien was blocked also. The roadblocks appeared to be related to some sort of an attack in Port-au-Prince -- another
brushfire in the chaotic and incendiary politics that has racked Haiti periodically for more than 200 years.
This time, reportedly, at least one policeman had been killed and several
wounded, and some hostages taken. The identity of the attackers remained
said they were young thugs in army uniforms financed by drug money -- Haiti's latest disaster; others said they were former army officers trying to retake the
government from the popularly elected, if unstable, administration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Whatever the cause, the blocked bridge was serious. Almost all traffic
in and out of Cap-Haitien passes over a fetid canal east of the city along
a bridge always
swarming with carts, bicycles, market women, goats, children, donkeys and the crowded, gaily painted "tap-tap" buses. The bridge overlooks a teeming, smoky
charcoal market that resembles some Dantesque circle of Hell.
The only obvious alternative to the bridge would involve a major backtrack
and detour over equally questionable roads with possible roadblocks in
even more distant
We decided to press on.
The next roadblock was near the wooden shacks that serve sporadically
as the Cap-Haitien airport. By this time trucks and tap-taps were giving
up and turning
around in front of us, and we were pushing through large crowds of brightly dressed pedestrians, many bearing baskets of charcoal or bananas on their heads. Most
appeared as curious about events as we did. Nobody appeared alarmed.
Through the acrid smoke from the burning tires Pat spotted a man she
knew. He came over calling out cheerfully to us in Creole, and embarked
on a long and
excited narration with much gesturing. Since our truck had four-wheel drive, he said, there might be another way for us: a little-known shortcut to something called
"the SOS road."
At his direction we headed down a crumbling path between a mildewed
concrete wall and an appalling ditch. Led by two goats and an extremely
moist pig ("Road
hog!"), we paralleled the ditch for several hundred yards perpendicular to the main highway, then, with Pat at the wheel, negotiated a potentially life-ending crater and
mounted onto concrete.
"Hey!" I said, mindful of the haphazard, uncontrolled nature of Cap-Haitien air traffic. "Aren't we driving down the runway?"
"Not exactly the runway itself," Pat said, unperturbed. "This is the
extension the American Army built in 1994 so they could get their big cargo
planes in here. It's the
best concrete in Haiti."
Beside us entire families pedaled blissfully on bicycles.
"Oh, I see where we're going," Pat said, spotting a distant disappearing
Toyota. "This is the one bridge you can always count on. It never washes
out even in
hurricanes. The French built it in the 1700s."
We mounted the humpback stone structure where a halfhearted roadblock
of brush had been pushed aside and, as the sun went down, bumped through
back streets into the western side of town. Soon we were on the main road from Limbe, which continues west and south (sort of) all the way to Port-au-Prince. We
were almost to our little hillside hotel and a much-anticipated glass of rum.
Then we crept around a corner into a dark and crowded intersection lit by flames.
The burning tires stretched across the potholed pavement to meet a barrier
of angle irons on the left. On the right they ran up against a concrete
phone pole. Between
the phone pole and a concrete building people streamed on foot, bicycle and occasional motorbike, end-running the roadblock with apparent unconcern.
We had no such luxury. As we contemplated what to do, the Mitsubishi
SUV in front of us rolled boldly forward and over the flaming tires by
the phone pole. He
made it through, but his passage seemed to anger the burning rubber. Flames mounted higher and we knew we would be fools to follow.
We were hemmed in now. Vehicles had stopped behind us so we couldn't
turn around. A few angry young men were tending the roadblock, adding iron
determined to let no one through.
"At least we know it's possible to get through there by the phone pole when the flames go down," I said.
"But there are people and kids walking past on the other side," Pat
said. "I can't see just where they are with the smoke and the flames, and
I'm terrified of hitting
One teenager pounded on the car and said he'd let us through if we gave
him money. Clark politely declined. "Once you start down that road, you're
really lost," he
Minutes went by. Suddenly, an enormous dump truck lurched around us and gunned straight for the roadblock.
"He'll scatter things!" Clark said. "Follow him through!"
But the high body and huge wheels sucked the flames higher as the truck broke through. Once again we were trapped.
"Maybe we could just knock the angle irons out of the way with the bumper," I said.
"They could puncture our tires," Clark replied. "We sure don't want
to try for it and not make it. The best place is there by the phone pole,
when we go. At least
you've got a diesel truck here, Pat. It's far less dangerous than trying it with gasoline in the tank. But I still say let's wait."
It was getting darker, however, and the crowd was growing.
Somebody struck the car with his hand.
"Just ignore him," said Clark.
Then an angry young man picked up a heavy metal bar and began clanking it against the curb.
"He's just trying to scare us," Clark said.
"He's succeeding," said Roberta.
The flames were starting to die down a little, but the smoke was just
as thick. We urged Pat to go, but she hesitated. Then Roberta saw the man
with the metal bar
filling a Molotov cocktail.
"Pat, we have to go for it," we all said at once.
Setting her teeth, she gunned the engine straight for the fender-high
flames near the phone pole. We bumped through them and swerved in the smoke
to miss a
mother and child and a motorbike. Then we were through the crowd and home free, racing down nearly empty streets toward the waterfront.
"Praise the Lord," said Pat.
We picked our way through a minor, unguarded barrier of scattered large
rocks and made it to the hotel, where two guards paced warily out front
Later we would learn that three attacks on police stations in the country had left five officers dead and 14 wounded.
Government officials, claiming an opposition plot, had urged countrywide
mobilization and arrested 39 opposition leaders. Four other opposition
members would flee
to political sanctuary in the Dominican Republic.
But all we knew last week was that we'd made it home.
"You told me you were a missionary, not the Evel Knievel of Cap-Haitien,"
Clark said to his pint-size companion. "Do the Baptists know they finance
"What are you talking about?" Pat said with a grin. "This was just your typical day in Haiti."