CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti – At the looted and idle docks in this northern port city, men in new camouflage uniforms clutch aging weapons as they lounge in the shade and discuss U.S. requests that they lay down their arms. But not very seriously.
“We will wait for the general to tell us our job is done,” said one, referring to Guy Philippe, a former police chief who led the uprising that prompted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to leave the country Feb. 29.
“We should stay three or four years because the Aristide people are everywhere, they are in the bushes,” said another fighter.
Call them what you will, Haiti’s new army, rebels or, as some of them here prefer, “liberators,” they are the only peacekeeping game in the region around Cap-Haitien, whose 500,000 people make it the country’s second-biggest city.
The former rebels roam the city at night, but many residents welcome the patrols, saying the fighters are keeping houses from being burned and businesses robbed.
Local commanders instituted an overnight curfew beginning Monday evening, and one man was wounded for violating the order. The man, Tony Appollo, said he didn’t know about the 6 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew and was shot in the arm when he entered town.
So far the peace seems to be holding. Unlike Port-au-Prince, the capital, Cap-Haitien hasn’t seen any rioting since Aristide’s fall. Rebels and residents did torch some homes the day the fighters seized the city Feb. 22, and looters hauled off 800 tons of U.N.-supplied food from the port, but Philippe’s force stopped the looting within two days.
At the emergency room of Cap-Haitien’s public hospital, nurse Marianne Nonez said the numbers of shootings and stabbings were about the same as before the uprising broke out a month ago.
She said she didn’t know if political reprisals were to blame for any of the cases. “They just drop them off here,” she said.
The talk of Cap-Haitien now is whether any of the foreign troops in Port-au-Prince will be sent to this area, which while just 90 miles away is a seven-hour drive over potholed roads.
Maurice Daniel, who heads Philippe’s force in Cap-Haitien, told The Associated Press he had been in touch with American officials, who have at least 1,600 Marines in the capital, along with 800 French and 300 Chilean soldiers.
“We will welcome (the foreign troops) with open arms if they can secure the security here,” Daniel said.
Why hasn’t his force disarmed?
“Oh my God, our job has just begun,” Daniel said, referring to the attempt to disarm the former president’s followers.
Pro-Aristide leaders apparently have fled, but the former president still has many supporters, particularly in the slums of Fort Saint Michel and Chat d’Or. It’s unclear how strong pro-Aristide sentiment is in the city, which like many others voted overwhelmingly for Aristide in 2000 but grew disillusioned over his failure to help the poor and alleged violent tactics to quiet dissent.
People in the slums said patrols by the former rebels have dwindled to one a day or less. No one would admit knowing anyone with a gun.
Sitting near graffiti reading “Aristide, King of Haiti,” a commander in the Philippe force, Pierre Devens, said about a dozen armed Aristide supporters had been arrested. He said they were held only a day or two because there are no jails or judges now.
Philippe said a week ago that he had left a couple of hundred fighters in Cap-Haitien, but their numbers appear to have dwindled.
Last week a U.S. military helicopter flew reconnaissance missions over the city and apparently dropped off an American assessment team. Airport workers said the team stayed in a cement building at the end of the runway but hadn’t been seen for several days.
A businessman, who agreed to talk with a reporter only on condition of anonymity, said the Americans had asked if there was a mayor (he fled last week) and how U.S. troops would be received.
For now, the Philippe force appears determined to do things its way.
“You have American forces in Port-au-Prince, but do they know what is happening here?” said one fighter at the docks. “Do they know who is who? So who is better here, them or us?”