Originally: Chaos has a face

Published on: 02/16/04

GONAIVES, Haiti — Chaos has a face.
It is an angry man with soot spread on his cheeks like war paint, who greets visitors to this embattled city with an automatic rifle in his hands.
Behind him, a gang of animated youths block the entrance to town with smoldering barricades made from jagged stones and the charred carcasses of destroyed vehicles.
Gonaives (pronounced goh-nah-EEV) is the center of the rebellion threatening to topple the Haitian government, but if it offers a glimpse of what the rebels would bring to their nation, the prospects are not encouraging.
Hungry people wander the streets, begging for food or money. Thousands have fled, fearful of a looming bloodbath. The hospital is closed because doctors are too afraid to come to work after rebels and police engaged in a pitched gunbattle there that killed several bystanders.
Hierarchy of command
Despite the apparent anarchy, there is a rough hierarchy of command, and leading the parade of disorder is a young tough who has told some reporters he will be Haiti’s president. His name is Buteur Metayer, and his claim to power apparently rests on the fact that his brother Amiot, once a self-proclaimed enforcer for embattled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was killed last fall after he broke away from Aristide, becoming a local martyr.
It seems a dubious rationale for power, an impression reinforced by the bedlam now plaguing Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city and normally home to more than 200,000 people.
Most shops are shuttered and a main gas station ? its tanks apparently empty ? is a scene of confusion.
“My baby is crying because I have no food,” said Jeanette Pierre, 19, leaning against the gatepost of the dirt-floored compound where she lives. “There is food, but the prices are very high, and I have no money anyway.”
To be fair, living conditions were never close to ideal in this hardscrabble port city, but since the rebels drove police from town two weeks ago, the hint of total breakdown hums in the air.
Leading from the slums
An audience with Metayer is a ticklish arrangement. He stays holed up in one of the city’s poorest districts, a slum of ramshackle shanties fronting a beach littered with garbage and decrepit wooden boats.
A fighter proudly shows off the remains of a scorched pickup truck parked on tireless rims by the water’s edge.
“This was Amiot’s,” he said, waving his arm like a tour guide.
Nearby is the slain leader’s grave, another instant shrine plopped down right in the street, surrounded now by a small fence and topped with a Haitian flag and a bronze bust of the hero.
Amiot Metayer, who reportedly ran Gonaives in the style of a Mafia don, once called his group the “Cannibal Army.” His brother, who now gives news conferences to international media, has rechristened it the “Artibonite Resistance Front,” a name derived from the surrounding river valley.
When reporters arrive, the armed men scurry about in a rush. Curious residents with nothing else to do swarm around. An old man climbs a small balcony on a shack, dangles his legs over the edge and begins strumming a guitar.
In the middle of the hubbub, a youth roars up on a motorcross bike, engine screaming, sliding to a stop. He dismounts in a flourish, ample muscles bulging around his black body armor.
Eventually, the journalists gather in front of a shack as the fighters, in a haphazard array of gear ranging from military fatigues to basketball jerseys and T-shirts advertising Florida tourist attractions, create an alley in the crowd for their leader to pass through.
Metayer sweeps out of a walled compound, walking with an air of command, flanked by toughs with rifles pointing skyward, butts on their hips.
The leader holds court in an open-air shed outfitted with torn couches and dilapidated car seats apparently scoured from the wrecks dotting the streets. He sits in front of a broken, upended Ping-Pong table that doubles as a blackboard for rebel strategy sessions, its green surface covered with chalked notes.
‘They all have guns’
Metayer, 33, wears a black felt cavalry hat ? like John Wayne wore in movies ? circled by a colorful lanyard. He sports aviator sunglasses, baggy surfer shorts, tennis shoes with white ankle socks bearing the “Nike” swoosh and a beige pullover that reads, “Hyatt Orlando.”
Dangling over the impromptu, midday news conference is a dusty, framed picture of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper, tacked to a wooden post, a set of prayer beads draped over its frame.
Metayer says his men will take town after town until they reach the capital, Port-au-Prince, when they will send Aristide on his way into exile. He refuses to say how many soldiers are in his ragged army.
“They all have guns, or if not guns, then machetes and rocks,” he said, sitting with his own machete at his side. The long blade’s black handle is festooned with a red-and-black lanyard that matches the one circling his cavalry hat.
After international aid workers appealed for the rebels to open a corridor through Gonaives and other towns to allow desperately needed food and medicine to pass through, several aid groups were able to enter the city Monday.
Rebels armed with machetes and rifles escorted a truckload of aid from the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, The Associated Press reported. The convoy was carrying 1.6 tons of supplies, including blood and surgical equipment.
In addition to the medical relief, the international nongovernmental organization CARE, which has its U.S. headquarters in Atlanta, began distributing food to people in Gonaives.
The road through the city is the main land route to Haiti’s north and aid groups had warned that thousands would face starvation if it could not be safely traveled.
New, old forces unite
The rebel chief confirmed rumors that a couple of feared figures from the nation’s past ? one exiled for allegedly plotting a coup, the other the former head of a paramilitary squad during Haiti’s last dictatorship ? have returned and are in league with his forces. The claim, confirmed by news reports, means Metayer’s rag-tag rebellion has been bolstered by ruthless men hungry for power in a chaotic country they know well.
He insists the rebels already have plenty of money, sent in the form of remittances from abroad. He denies reports his army has been funded in part by proceeds from Haiti’s flourishing drug-smuggling industry.
As for domestic politics, Metayer says he has no contact with a coalition of opposition politicians and businessmen who have led protests in Port-au-Prince, and he is vague about what role the rebels would play if they succeed in removing Aristide from power.
Expanding on the foreign policy implications of his uprising, he ponders the question of potential relations with the United States.
“For myself, I don’t think Bush is my enemy, but he’ll be more of my friend when he takes Aristide away,” Metayer said. American presidents have disposed of Haitian leaders in the past with little more than telephone calls, he said, adding, “Bush needs to pick up the phone.”