The Miami Herald
Tue, Feb. 24, 2004
Town taken from rebels feels heat of reprisal

Accusations of brutality by pro-Aristide militias in the city of St. Marc show why there is little support for the president as rebels try to topple him.


ST. MARC, Haiti -- When Amazil Jean-Baptiste's 22-year-old son hobbled home with a bullet in each thigh, she carried him to the one place she believed was safe -- her pastor's house. But shortly after they arrived, six men in police uniforms burst into the house.

'They said, `We're going to kill him,' '' Jean-Baptiste recalled, using a blue house towel to sop up her tears. They hauled off her son, Kenon. He hasn't been seen since.

Jean-Baptiste's son appears to have been one of what residents say were at least 15 retaliation killings in this strategic port city by supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after an attack by antigovernment rebels more than two weeks ago.

Agents from a special Haitian police unit rushed in from the capital, Port-au-Prince, taking back control of the city after a few days. But since the fighting ended, St. Marc has been under a terrifying lockdown by the police and a gang of armed pro-Aristide civilians called Clean Sweep.

The allegations against the police and Clean Sweep help explain the weakness of support for Aristide and the police that has allowed the rebels to sweep almost unopposed through northern Haiti since Feb. 5 and to capture the nation's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, on Sunday.

The two forces are so intertwined that when Clean Sweep's head of security walks by, Haitian police officers salute him and call him ``comandant.''

Residents now say they fear the police sent here to protect them. Hundreds of people have fled the city of 200,000, tucked in the mountains a two-hour drive from the capital, and even the state-run hospital is empty. The doctors and patients left after they were threatened by men shining flashlights into the rooms late at night.

''We are all very afraid,'' said Marie Micael Apollon, one of two dozen women who went to a Catholic church to pray the Rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to save Haiti. ``We can't suffer anymore. This is too much.''

After the invading gunmen were defeated here and withdrew, Clean Sweep and the police targeted the neighborhood of La Scierie, an opposition stronghold. They poured diesel fuel in some houses and burned close to a dozen. An unknown number of people burned to death inside, residents said.

On a recent visit to the wreckage of the opposition party's headquarters, a bone shard lay on the ash-covered floor, where neighbors said a human body once lay. The smell of decay hung in the air.

Residents say many more than 15 have died here in the retaliation attacks, but apparently nobody has tried to make a full accounting of the bodies. There haven't been many funerals, either -- people are too afraid, or haven't been able to recover the dead.

''They don't want you to find the bodies. Nobody will ever find them. You'll just see parts of them,'' said Terry Snow, an evangelical missionary from Texas who has lived in St. Marc for over a decade, tears welling in his eyes. ``The dogs are no longer hungry in St. Marc.''

Amazil Jean-Baptiste and her son live a few blocks away, and down an alley from the opposition party headquarters in La Scierie. Jean-Baptiste says her son wasn't involved in politics but was wounded in the chaos on the streets while he was walking home from his carpentry job. He was in a rush, she said, because he knew it wasn't safe to be outside after dark.

Jean-Baptiste hasn't reported his disappearance to authorities because she doesn't feel safe turning to the very people she believes took her son away.

''We're alone here,'' she said, heavy with grief, showing visitors the wood table her son had just made for her to use for making bread for her home bakery business.

At the city's entrance, a sign in cheerful blue script says ''Welcome to St. Marc.'' But a few steps away a policeman stops all vehicles -- cars, buses, trucks laden with sacks of rice going to market -- looking for suspicious people. At 5 p.m., the entrances close.

The city is under such pressure because St. Marc is strategically located -- halfway between Gonaives, a rebel stronghold to the north, and Port-au-Prince to the south, which the antigovernment rebels have vowed will be their next target.

Amanus Mayette, the local legislative representative and member of Aristide's Lavalas Family party, watches over the city. When a journalist sought him out, he sat for an interview in his living room with a group of men who described themselves as his private security force -- all members of Clean Sweep.

Mayette disputed the reports of killings in the city and said most of the damage, including the torched homes and port offices, was done by the rebel gunmen and opposition militants before they retreated from the city.

He insisted that Clean Sweep, despite its ominous name, is merely a group that does social work for the needy and works politically to help Aristide. To Mayette, all is well in St. Marc, for now. ''Calm is here, for the moment,'' Mayette said, with confidence. ``The police have control of the situation.''