April 2, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Through the crisply appraising eyes of a military man, U.S. Marine Col. Mario LaPaix gazes out at this city and sees a strife-torn capital needing the help of U.S. troops to restore calm.

But through the eyes of a native son, LaPaix casts his mind back and sees a lighter picture: his happy childhood spent in one of Port-au-Prince’s sunny neighborhoods, with all the sugar cane, mangos and lip-smacking local candy a kid could want.

Four decades separate the time when LaPaix emigrated from Haiti to New York as a boy and his assignment here now as a member of the international force charged with keeping order after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in an armed rebellion.

A 27-year veteran of the Marines, LaPaix is American through and through. Yet memory and heritage make him Haitian as well, adding poignancy and practical knowledge to his job as a special adviser to the head of peacekeeping operations here, U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman.

LaPaix, 49, still speaks Creole, still has an understanding of the local culture and still feels a kinship with the people of this Caribbean nation, whose 200-year history of independence is a roller-coaster ride of political coups and economic despair.

“There’s a side to you that this is the place where you were born — you want Haiti to do better,” LaPaix said in the makeshift U.S. military camp near Port-au-Prince’s airport. “Haiti has a special flavor, a special place in my heart, in my mind.”

LaPaix is one of about 20 U.S. servicemen and -women of Haitian descent out of the 1,900-strong U.S. military presence here. Their backgrounds have helped inject a small but helpful dose of expertise to a contingent of troops mostly unfamiliar with this country’s customs, attitudes and troubled past.

Perhaps the biggest asset many of these returning troops bring with them comes tripping off the tongue.

Plucked from duty as deputy commander of a U.S. military hospital in Honduras, Army Lt. Col. Jozy Smarth is brushing up on the Creole and French she spoke daily until she moved to Brooklyn from Port-au-Prince at age 12. Both languages are official tongues in Haiti. With headphones on and a laptop before her, the 43-year-old sits in a bare-bones office and fiddles with a radio dial. In this technologically arrested country, radio remains one of the primary means of communication, and Smarth monitors the airwaves, which teem with news, rumors, listener comments and other useful information. Smarth also scours local newspapers, has acted as a field interpreter and, when the U.S. encampment gets around to installing a TV, will track local television broadcasts as well. It’s the first time in her 18-year army career that Creole has come in handy. “It feels odd, because I never expected to do (this),” said Smarth, a nurse by training who has returned to Haiti several times on medical missions with her church. “I jumped at it, for the chance to come back and contribute.”

Things have changed. When she was young, sometimes it took her father, a truck driver, a week to travel between Port-au-Prince and her hometown, Cavaillon. Now it’s a three-hour trip when the roads are in decent condition — not always a sure bet, with public services in Haiti running on very little money. Here in the capital, close to the National Palace in the heart of downtown, a blocky hotel squats on the spot where Smarth’s family home stood.

Also, her uncle is no longer the prime minister.

Rosny Smarth served less than 16 months under President Rene Preval, from 1996 to 1997. Jozy Smarth hasn’t seen her famous uncle in more than 20 years, but she hopes to when she can get some time off base.

She does know that he and other family members are fine, despite the violent havoc wreaked by anti-Aristide rebels and the deposed president’s band of armed loyalists, a thuggish group known as the chimeres, a term added relatively recently to Haiti’s political glossary. The chimeres, named after a mythical beast, remain a worrisome, potentially destabilizing force.

“We were getting a briefing, and they were saying `chimere,’ and I thought, `What’s a chimere?”’ Smarth said. “I had to call my dad to ask him.”

U.S. Marine Sgt. Marie Augustin, usually a supply clerk but serving as an interpreter here, turned to her aunt for help in understanding another popular catch phrase, “You’ll get to know George,” a warning that means something like “You’re asking for trouble.”

“If there’s a chance you might get reprimanded for something, they’ll say, `You’ll get to know George,”’ Augustin said. “And they’re referring to the U.S. president!”

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, residents greet U.S. troops with weary familiarity, lingering suspicion or friendly welcome, depending on which side of the political divide they stand. Augustin encounters a fair amount of curiosity, too.

“I’m a 26-year-old girl walking around with a big knife,” she said, chuckling. But she added that when locals discover her Haitian roots and hear her speaking Creole, people see in her the opportunity to make good, to rise above the misery that makes this country the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

For her part, Augustin marvels at the strength and perseverance of a people that has weathered dictators and fallen governments and hard times for two centuries.

“I’m very amazed by the Haitian spirit,” said Augustin, who left Haiti when she was 11. “An outsider may think, `This is happening again.’ But I’ve never met a Haitian who says, `I’ll give up.’ ”