The Washington Post
Monday, March 1, 2004; Page A13

A City Smolders as Night Falls

Port-au-Prince Greets Aristide's Flight With Spasm of Anarchy

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 29 -- The State University Hospital, just blocks from the suddenly unoccupied National Palace, filled steadily with bewildered victims throughout the day. Only the doctors and nurses stayed away.

Lorient Monplaisir, leaning back into his wife's arms, recounted the moments before buckshot struck his left thigh as he tried to protect his mattress store from looters. A battle between police and pro-government gangs, intent on plundering the southern suburb of Carrefour, unfolded throughout the morning.

"They always came to burn our place," Monplaisir said.

A woman with a head wound writhed on the neighboring gurney. Four other women struggled as they carried a fifth, bleeding from a bullet wound to her head. They were delivering her to a hospital full of patients but lacking doctors, in a country with no easily identifiable government.

"There's a lot of tension. It's very hot right now," said a veteran ambulance driver for the Haitian Red Cross, his face sweating beneath a white helmet. "I'm not happy, and I'm not angry, just shocked. I've been through a lot of days like this here."

A sense of exhaustion -- from the violence, the fear and a cycle of political unrest that is two centuries old -- was palpable in this seaside capital by the end of the day. A city that had been ravaged by armed gangs loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now the former president, greeted his departure with a spasm of anarchy and then fell largely silent in anticipation of the arrival of foreign troops.

The few people on the streets, thick with garbage and heavy with haze from smoldering house fires, appeared eager for an end to the 33rd unplanned change of government in Haiti's 200-year history. The gangs that had surrounded the frosting-white National Palace only a day earlier, vowing to defend Aristide to the death, had vanished.

So had much of their ardor. The reaction to the former priest's departure, the second time he has abandoned the presidency, took the form of opportunistic looting of banks, hospitals and small stores rather than overt political protest. It was hard to find anyone, at least among the unarmed civilians wandering the streets, who would confess to missing him now that he had gone.

"Some are satisfied, and some are pretty angry, but I am happy," said Jauves-Vicmal Cameau, a 23-year-old high school junior. He strolled along the Champ de Mars, near the broad plaza in front of the National Palace, the half-built monument meant to celebrate Haiti's bicentennial this year.

Thousands of Aristide supporters, rallied by his Lavalas party, had staked out the spot the previous day to defend the president from a threatened rebel attack. Only Cameau and a few others, many of them picking through piles of garbage, were here late this afternoon.

"Once the sun went down in this country, you couldn't function," he said of the insecurity that has gripped his neighborhood. "The change could be good for everybody."

There was little open celebrating, even among Aristide's opponents, largely because doing so remained dangerous in a capital where armed militias held sway for much of the day. Fresh graffiti downtown called for Aristide to spend the next 50 years in prison, obscuring earlier graffiti demanding he be allowed to finish his five-year term.

Late in the day, police appeared to gain control of the city center, patrolling in pickup trucks and SUVs. Still, bodies shredded by gunfire dangled from a Toyota Previa on the main road from the rich hillside neighborhoods into the squalid city center.

"These were the ones who brought terror, and this is the result," said Jean Marie Augustin, 32, gesturing toward the bodies spilling from the minivan. His shack sits in a small ravine below the spot on John Brown Avenue where the shooting took place.

Augustin said the men were armed supporters of Aristide who had fired on police as they sped up the hill toward Petionville, the center of opposition to the former president.

After weeks of insurrection, as well as the years of political gridlock that had led to the suspension of foreign aid, Augustin was one of many Haitians who appeared ready to embrace the next government, whatever form it took. Referring to a leader of the anti-Aristide rebels, he said, "When this guy Guy Philippe comes in, everything is going to be pretty cool."

Some of Sunday's vandalism appeared to target Aristide's opposition, which is led largely by Haiti's small but politically powerful economic elite. A string of gas stations -- Texaco, National and Total -- were torched along John Brown Avenue and still smoldered as night fell. A lone man in shorts and a ragged T-shirt swept out the ashes of one Texaco station near the palace. Branches of the country's largest banks were looted early Sunday.

In Petionville, pro-Aristide gangs looted the police station before being driven off by returning police officers, who have been largely absent in recent days, and some armed civilians.

"The chain of command will be restored as soon as possible," said Michael Lucius, a police officer whose name tag identified him as inspector general. "We're not making any arrests at the moment."

Sustained bursts of rifle fire became less frequent as the day wore on, only once interrupting the groans and whispering voices at the State University Hospital in the hours before the 6 p.m. curfew shut down the city. The ambulances pulled in soon after the gunfire ceased, unloading a teenage boy who had been shot in the stomach.

The boy's pants were stripped off, and bloody bandages lay on his abdomen. No one emerged from the emergency room to treat him.

© 2004