The Miami Herald
Fri, Mar. 05, 2004

Strife makes hiding a way of life


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- In a country where politics periodically whipsaw out of control and debate is conducted with machetes and guns, politicians will inevitably find themselves where none of their American counterparts are forced to go.

Mawon. In hiding.

Just a week ago, opponents of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas Family party were mawon, hiding from the president's brutal supporters known as chimres.

Now, the one-time rulers and chimres are themselves mawon -- either have left the country, are sleeping at friends' homes or, if they have the money, barricaded behind stone walls, steel doors and shotgun-wielding security guards high in the hills above town.

''Those who did not leave the country had to go underground for fear of violence to them and their families,'' said Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, who himself is protected by U.S. Marines in light armored vehicles.


Politics in Haiti has long involved an ominous cycle of feats while in power and hiding when not. If the Eskimos have dozens of words to describe snow, the Haitian Creole language has a similar level of nuance for keeping a low profile.

Kache is to hide in a casual way. Anba is to be ''under the leaves,'' which is not as serious as sove, to not be seen. Mawon, a total vanishing act, comes from maroon, the term for escaped slaves who lived in the wilds under French colonial rule -- and requires a full disappearance.

Gerard Pierre-Charles, a 68-year-old human rights advocate and longtime political force in Haiti, has done all of the above. He has hidden so many times since he got into politics as a student in 1959 that he has a certain equanimity about it all.

There's even a glint of humor in his eye when he looks back at his time ``under the leaves.''

''Just two months ago, a diplomat came to me and said I have information and you have to go into hiding,'' he recalled. 'I stayed at friends' houses for a few days.''

Today, Pierre-Charles is out in the fresh air in his guayabera, holding court in his gated veranda with friends, journalists and confidantes.

Explaining his periods of mawon, he shrugs and smiles: ``I like politics. The politics change.''


The first time Charles fell out of favor with a president -- dictator Francois ''Papa Doc'' Duvalier back then -- he found himself with little more than a pack of cigarettes and the shirt on his back, hiding in cool pine-clad mountains above the capital.

He escaped and spent the next 26 years in exile in Mexico, where he worked as a professor.

He delved back into public affairs when he returned, and after the assassination of journalist Jean Dominique in 2000, he holed up in the chilly peaks again -- the Chaine des Matheux -- shivering with his pack of cigarettes.

When gunmen attacked the National Palace on Dec. 17, 2001, Aristide's chimres barged into Pierre-Charles's walled-off home in suburban Petionville, sending his wife and daughter scurrying out the back door.


Pierre-Charles was in Miami at the time. The intruders looted his home, burned part of it and stole two cars.

He concedes that such events have long been a fact of life in Haiti.

''In the night, they come to kill you,'' he said. ``They move from one block to another.''

Thus the most basic form of hiding: going about one's day, but sleeping in exile.

''You have certain degrees of hiding,'' said Marvel Dandin, news director at Radio Kiskeya. ``Some people choose to go everywhere but sleep where no one knows. The degree of hiding depends on the severity of the threat.''

Pierre-Charles Henri Baker, a leader of the opposition against Aristide, said many of the members of his Group 184 went into hiding for weeks and are just now beginning to come out.

''There's still chimres running around with automatic weapons,'' he said.

Baker himself, who owns an apparel factory, lives in a walled-off home in the hills with one armed guard. This is the norm -- if not the minimum -- level of security for public figures in Haiti.

Haitians are adept at reading both the shifting political sands and the signs of danger.

For instance, Baker and 25 of his members were heading to a rally in November when police arrested all of them because Baker was carrying a handgun. He said he had a license.

While in the station, the police brought in a crew from the government-run television station to take some footage, he said. Baker protested, but the crew filmed the group anyway.


That night, he said, the sister-in-law of one of men arrested was murdered. Group 184 scrambled to get the rest of those who were filmed into hiding.

Some had to go to the Dominican Republic, France, the United States and Canada -- the most extreme form of mawon.

''Those in immediate danger had to get out of the country,'' he said.

Now Baker and the rest of the opposition, though not searching for the Lavalas mawon, are trying to make sure they do not flee the country.

''These guys pillaged the funds of Haiti,'' he said. ``They have a lot of money we don't want to disappear.''