Haitian Uprising Unites Onetime Enemies


Associated Press Writer

February 10, 2004, 6:49 PM EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Some helped Jean-Bertrand Aristide win the presidency. Others helped oust him in a 1991 coup. Haiti‘s bloody revolt has brought together people who were once mortal enemies.

The rebel leader in the largest city under the militants’ control, for example, was part of a gang that was attacking Aristide opponents and setting fire to their homes just a year ago.

Today Wilfort Ferdinand, 27, is the rebel-appointed police chief of Gonaives, where his militia on Thursday led an uprising that has spread to nearly a dozen cities and towns and threatens Aristide’s presidency.

At least 42 people, including several police officers, have been killed.

“We with weapons are few in numbers, but we have the support of the people and are therefore invincible!” boasted Ferdinand, brandishing an M-16 assault weapon.

His ragtag militia is getting some unexpected help from former soldiers of an army that Aristide disbanded in 1995, four years after soldiers ousted him and he was restored to power. At least 50 of the ex-soldiers, heavily armed and dressed in old fatigues, have been operating for a year outside
Gonaives in what the government calls an “armed wing of the opposition.” They have killed at least 30 people in attacks on government officials and towns.

It is unclear how many are in
Gonaives and what role they play in the insurrection, but a rebel leader told The Associated Press “they have come to lend us a helping hand.”

The military, which has staged some 30 coups, traditionally supported an elite that for decades subjugated the poor majority among
Haiti‘s 8 million people.

Aristide, who was restored to power by a
U.S. intervention in 1994, rose to his position by championing the poor. He was re-elected in 2000 on a platform promising “peace of mind, peace in the belly.”

But he has lost support as violence has escalated in the wake of flawed legislative elections. International donors have frozen aid and increasingly miserable Haitians have watched a new and corrupt elite of “gran manje” or “fat cats” emerge.

“Aristide has enriched himself and his cronies while we are starving to death,” said student leader Philippe Dormessan. “All classes of society are united in saying he must go.”

Unarmed groups like his have helped man barricades and kept watch at night against any attempt at a counteroffensive by police and Aristide supporters.

The disparity in the ideologies of those leading and supporting the uprising is mirrored in an opposition coalition of political parties, civic, business and human rights groups that include one-time Aristide supporters, coup supporters and students who were barely in their teens when the 1991 coup was staged.

The coalition has distanced itself from the rebels, denouncing the violence.

Gonaives, Haiti‘s fourth largest city with 200,000 residents, is historically an Aristide stronghold. Ferdinand’s self-styled Cannibal Army, admired by slumdwellers for its generosity with ill-gotten gains, turned on Aristide after gang leader Amiot Metayer was assassinated in September.

Ferdinand and other gang members say Aristide armed them to terrorize political enemies, and accuse the government of ordering Metayer’s killing to prevent him publishing allegedly damaging information about the president. The government denies all involvement with the gang.

For some, choosing sides has become a matter of survival.

“I voted for Aristide,” said garage mechanic Jules Auguste. “And I regret it beyond words.”

Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press