Originally: Monsters and Cannibals at war in Haiti

Fuelled by drugs and voodoo, supporters of Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide are fighting a revolt against him, reports Marcus Warren

Thousands of students calling for the resignation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide clashed with police and armed thugs yesterday in a day of violence that once again brought anarchy to the streets of the Haitian capital.

Drink and drug-fuelled mobs of Aristide supporters roamed the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, into the night, setting up barricades, intimidating onlookers and flaunting their weapons in the hope of muzzling a groundswell of demands for the government’s overthrow.

The thugs, known as “the Monsters”, shut down most of the capital, chanting “Aristide for king” and screaming “This is a war between the dark and light-skinned” at passers-by as they gathered in front of the presidential palace to the accompaniment of voodoo drums.

Pulling drivers out of their vehicles to rough them up and steal their cars, their only saving grace was their poor marksmanship. One hoodlum who took aim with his revolver at the car in which I was travelling, missed from 10 yards.

Heavily armed police patrolling the city did nothing to stop the mayhem. Law and order had all but broken down even before the latest surge of violence. Haiti can field only 5,000 policemen to control its 8 million people.

To maintain his grip on power, Mr Aristide and his allies have been forced to rely on “the Monsters”, thugs mostly recruited from the slums.

The demonstrating students, terrified by their brutality, were forced to take to the hills above the city, marching through alleys to avoid the mobs.

“Things can still happen fast here,” Andy Apaid, a key opposition leader, said yesterday. “This can still be delayed but it will take a lot of killing to do so and prompt the downfall of his regime.”

Today’s demonstrations were the most violent of a week-long wave of protests by up to 10,000 students that has been moving through the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Behind the unrest aiming to unseat Mr Aristide, the former priest who once inspired support across the country, lies the same voodoo cult that fuelled the slaves of Haiti to rout Napoleon’s armies and
win their freedom 200 years ago.

The black cross of the Baron, Master of the Dead and Keeper of the Cemeteries, that was carried at the head of the student demonstrations symbolises their readiness to die for their cause – a readiness which may soon be put to the test as the country plunges into new bloodshed and violence.

Haiti is still the poorest country in the Americas and the Port-au-Prince slums offer an image of destitution so complete that the late Mother Theresa called them “the Fifth World”.

The spectacular upsurge in strife has been aggravated by Mr Aristide’s campaign to mark the bicentenary of Haiti’s founding with fanfare and celebrations.

The anniversary marks the occasion when a slave insurrection, freeing the colony from French rule, gave the world its first black republic.

Nowhere is Mr Aristide’s weakened status more visible than in Gonaives, where Haiti declared its independence on January 1, 1804. Monuments to the date have been smashed up and its slums are under
the control of the so-called “Cannibal Army”.

Tyres burn on the streets, pigs snuffle through barricades of rubbish built to keep the police at bay and even “Rosie’s”, a local brothel, has been shot up.

Sporting red neckerchiefs which endow them, so they think, with the mystical power to dodge harm and sprinkling a special voodoo eau de toilette as they march, the “Cannibals” scream for revenge against
Mr Aristide.

Although ordained as a Catholic priest, Mr Aristide, 50, is only too aware of the power of voodoo beliefs. In a populist bow to the masses he has declared it an official religion.

Many Haitians still assume that, as the survivor of numerous past assassination attempts and coups, he has mystic powers himself.

Even voodoo may not save him now. While the “Cannibal Army” will spoil the bicentenary only in Gonaives, the student demonstrations could yet sweep aside his rule.

“The streets are hot. Aristide is in trouble,” the demonstrators chanted as they jogged through the streets. “We are not afraid. We will never fear.”

Some former cronies, several of them with distinctly unsavoury pasts of their own, are deserting their president. One ex-ally predicted that he is destined for “death, prison, or, at best, exile”.

Nor can he depend on the inhabitants of the slums who were once his disciples and believed he could deliver them from a life little better than animal.

“Death is all I see for my children,” said Marie Medesin, the mother of nine, as she surveyed the shacks built among rubbish tips and open sewers that are home to her and hundreds of thousands of others
in the city.

So desperate is the situation in the slums that a dead body, clearly the result of some violent confrontation between gangs, lay unclaimed, and almost unnoticed, for hours.

The softly spoken president seems convinced that he and only he can save the country from total ruin. “What we have been through in recent years would be enough to make any other president unable to
govern,” he said.

Often criticised for trying to run the country like a parish priest, he pleaded for “dialogue” and “conciliation” at a press conference this week.

But within 24 hours, “the Monsters”, were running wild on the streets outside, trying to stone foreign journalists and shooting up opposition radio stations.

“I dare someone to come into my position and keep both the rich and poor happy,” he said during a press conference which ended with him, like a caring vicar after a Sunday service, shaking hands with each
journalist as they left.

He may have spoken too soon. Someone may take him up on the challenge earlier than he thinks. But no one can relish taking over a country with such a turbulent past where half the population is illiterate and one in 20 have Aids.