Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Street gangs hijack food aid in Haiti

GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) -- Street gangsters are holding up aid convoys, crashing food distributions, breaking into homes to steal food and shooting anyone who gets in their way, subjecting tens of thousands of weary storm survivors to life-threatening delays in getting food and water.

The failure of Haiti's U.S.-backed government to disarm the gangs, including the Cannibal Army that started the revolution that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has created a climate of insecurity that jeopardizes lives in the calamity visited on Gonaives by Tropical Storm Jeanne.

"Things are very bad here. People are insecure, and we have to fight for everything," said Rony Coq, 30, from the gang called the Bottle Army because its members fling bottles at enemies.

Coq's gang operates in Cassolet, a maze of concrete slum homes that was mired in up to five feet (1.5 meters) of mud Tuesday -- 10 days after the passage of Tropical Storm Jeanne.

Nearby, a human vertebra stuck out of a pile of sludge topped by a tire -- among unclaimed flood victims that residents buried because so many were rotting before officials ordered mass burials.

Officials say more than 1,500 people died in the storm and some 900 are missing. Many must soon be presumed among the dead -- washed out to sea or buried in collapsed houses in still inaccessible areas.

The security chief for the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti, John Harrison of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was touring Cassolet Tuesday to find a safe place to distribute food.

Earlier, only about 40 people had lined up for food at a center where U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil on Monday had fired into the air to control hundreds of people who rioted when they were prevented from looting food.

"It's very difficult to get food. We come every day ... People are getting very frustrated," said one of them, Manette Jean, 31.

She said a piece of metal stuck into her foot when she was shoved and nearly trampled on in a food distribution, but that she had to come so she can feed her five children.

Harrison had hoped to use Gonaives' port, but when they arrived found it in the hands of armed men. "There's a big problem with gangs," he told The Associated Press. "I think things could get worse."

The news from the port was bad for the World Food Program, which was chartering a boat to carry food to the 250,000 people of Gonaives, of whom 200,000 were left homeless in the storm.

Jouthe Joseph of the international humanitarian group CARE said Tuesday that 10 tons of food had been lost to looting in Gonaives -- out off 175 tons delivered in the past week -- and that they had fed about 98,000 people.

His figures did not include private aid trucks that have been looted -- nor a government convoy held up by armed men at the entrance to the city. That flashpoint for looters was being secured Tuesday by Uruguayan peacekeepers.

Interior Minister Herard Abraham said the Uruguayans needed time to settle in and that in a few days "Security will improve."

The United Nations rushed 150 more troops to Gonaives at the weekend to reinforce some 600 peacekeepers already in the city. Brazilian Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, in charge of the force, said Monday he has only 3,000 of the 6,700 troops he needs in Haiti and could use more help from the local police force.

Harrison, the Canadian, also complained about the police: "There is no security right now. There are no patrols. There are no functioning police. We're on our own."

But Haiti's force, which also numbers only about 3,000 in a country of 8 million, remains demoralized and poorly equipped since rebels chased them from their stations, killing dozens, in a February uprising that led to Aristide's ouster.

On Tuesday, police officers in their only working vehicle in Gonaives drove by a water truck that was being looted -- people had swarmed up on to the moving vehicle and were chucking out bottles of water to a gleeful crowd that followed. The officers came from the opposite direction -- and kept driving.

Police Commissioner Abner Vilme confirmed Tuesday that street gangs were breaking into people's homes in the blacked-out city at night. He said his men -- down to about 15 since the storm -- had tried to negotiate with the gangs, but that the gangsters did not keep promises to behave.

Haiti's police appear to have no orders to rein in the gangs. Some are purely criminal but many are allied and armed by rival political parties. Some, like members of the Cannibal Army, say they were armed by Aristide's henchmen to terrorize his political opponents.

The Cannibal Army subsequently turned on Aristide -- blaming him for the murder of their leader -- and started a rebellion that quickly was joined by ex-soldiers.

U.S. troops flew into Haiti as Aristide fled in February, and helped install an interim government whose relations with the rebels has raised questions. Caribbean leaders, who refuse to recognize the government, were scandalized when interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue hailed the rebel leaders as "liberators"-- including two convicted of murders committed under a coup regime.

On Tuesday, Cannibal Army leader Wynter Etienne, now an executive officer of the rebels' Front for National Reconstruction party, was on his way to a meeting at the prime minister's offices when an AP reporter asked him about the looting in Gonaives.

Etienne said he had brought in three truckloads of aid and chief rebel leader Guy Philippe another two that all had been partially looted.

He said the city was suffering problems of disorder and aggression but "We don't really have a problem with arms."

That has not been the experience of Dr. Jean-Claude Kompas, a New York physician who said he has treated 30 people for gunshot wounds received in fights over scarce food.

Aid workers who complain they have been mobbed by gangsters note that poor Haitians do not have firearms.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.