“I am in charge of Haiti!” one excited former soldier in his fifties exclaims. The others laugh on cue, one of them holding a handgun casually by his side. Swinging around to pose for the camera, an older man in fatigues carelessly waves the barrel of his machine gun past me at chest height. Two hours north of Port-au-Prince, in the town of Saint-Marc, we’ve received our first introduction to the 3,000-strong band of military enthusiasts dubbed Haiti’s “rogue” army.
Two-hundred yards past a police checkpoint, the illegal group has set up its own road stop in full view of passing UN vehicles; a green blur of ill-fitting helmets, mismatched uniforms and bullet belts. It is Bonne Fête Saint-Marc, the town’s annual celebration, and they’ve chosen the big day for a show of force. Remarkably, the nearby UN personnel and Haitian police (PNH) maintain only a watching brief.
Mobilizing most visibly in May 2011 after President Michel Martelly’s inauguration, the collection of former non-commissioned army officers and their younger tagalongs had long been in covert training, but ramped things up considerably once Martelly - who made the return of the long-disbanded Haitian Armed Forces (FAd’H) a core promise of his election campaign - took office.
In February they seized a number of former military bases and demanded that the president stick to his word. A government effort to diffuse the situation by repaying overdue military pensions was ignored by the rebels, most of whom didn’t qualify for the payments. Saying they’d accept nothing less than roles in the new force, they began provoking the UN and PNH, most notably when 50 uniformed “soldiers” showed up at parliament with hand grenades at the ready.
In the mountain town of Terre Rouge, we approach the gates of a one-time FAd’H base. A group of maybe 20 men stand around, one carrying a machete, another a shotgun. As in Saint-Marc, older army types are flanked by their younger followers, who look on vacantly. Here, though, they’re not so keen on photo ops.
“It was spies taking pictures in 1994 which caused the army to fall,” one of the commanders says. “We don’t know who you are.” Not a good start. “Why did you hide the car?” another blurts out angrily. “If you’ve nothing to hide, show us the car.”
We hadn’t spotted the base built into the mountainside until we were around a bend in the road, and had innocently left our car sitting out of view. Though our guides fearlessly argue our case, when one of the “soldiers” tells them that, “It’s Haitians like you who give the country a bad name,” we decide to cut our losses.
These encounters came in the weeks before May 18, Haitian Flag Day, when a large demonstration in Port-au-Prince ended in a brief firefight and the eventual disbandment of the paramilitary force by a joint PNH and UN operation which was met with little resistance. On the face of it that appeared to be the end of the saga, but in fact it may only be the end of the beginning.
For months President Martelly had done nothing to dampen the rogue army’s expectations, leading to speculation that he was quietly supporting their efforts after growing impatient with a commission he had installed to map out the military’s recreation. Saying they answered only to the president, the paramilitaries had put a lot of their weapons out of view after he ordered them to do so, but otherwise they had gone about their business undisturbed.
Others theorized that though this was a crisis Martelly created, it was later shifted beyond his control by other political opportunists and outside players. Just who funded the band’s uniforms and guns, provided their shiny new trucks and filled them with gas, and bought their generators is as of yet a mystery. By the time they were dissolved, however, the group had succeeded in gaining a good deal of sympathy from a Haitian people deeply cynical after eight years of thousands of UN troops, but zero progress.
Since arriving in 2004, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah) has helped to train the 10,000-strong PNH, but it has also been dogged by controversy, which explains its reluctance to break up the rogue army using the force which its Chapter Seven mandate allows.
Seen as an occupation force sent to rubberstamp the 2004 coup against hugely popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Minustah raids on the Cité Soleil slum over the course of 2005 and 2006 made a bad start unredeemable.
Officially described as incursions to break up kidnap gangs or “bandits,” operations such as the one which used 22,000 rounds of ammunition to take out Aristide’s most high-profile loyalist, Emmanuel “Dred” Wilme, also killed large numbers of civilians as bullets designed to pierce armor ripped through flimsy shacks.
As outlined in the important recent collection of essays Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, Haiti actually has a homicide rate much lower than many of its neighbors such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the US Virgin Islands. Brazil, Minustah’s main troop supplier, has a civilian violence rate some 300% higher.
Despite this, among 16 UN missions across the globe with a total of 119,215 personnel, Minustah, with 10,409 troops and police and 12,552 in total on its books, ranks only behind Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon in the numbers game.
The people’s resentment of this war zone approach to a country without a conflict has been topped up by cases such as the December 2007 deportation of 114 Sri Lankan Minustah soldiers over charges of sexual abuse against underage girls. As we pass the entrance to a huge UN base in Port-au-Prince, graffiti on the walls reads: “No trespassing. Risk to be [sic] molested and put in jail.”
The final straw came in October 2010, after a cholera outbreak near the town of Mirebalais. The disease spread like wildfire and has since killed over 7,000 people, but although independent studies point to the cholera being introduced to Haiti by Nepalese blue helmets stationed in the town, thus far the UN has not accepted responsibility.
Disasters like this are ideal fodder for the likes of former army sergeant Aubin Larose. At Camp Lamentin, a former FAd’H base in the Carrefour neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the self-styled leader of the paramilitaries played the evildoing “foreigners” of Minustah off against his new, improved army in the days before the May 18 crackdown.
“When the army comes we will make sure that you have security,” he said. “Minustah came to bring peace into the country but peace is not there – it’s a war. They gave us cholera and a lot of our brothers and sisters died.”
“If we can’t have an army, we don’t want any other army,” another former sergeant, Yves Jeudy, said defiantly in front of around 150 “soldiers” the following day. “We’ve decided we’re not going back. They need to give us an answer quick. We’re running out of patience.”
That answer was seen on May 18 when, sticking to a deadline for action which they themselves had given to the government, Aubin, Jeudy and hundreds of other wannabe soldiers launched their demonstration in Port-au-Prince. The march soon turned ugly, with protestors throwing rocks at Minustah troops, followed by a brief shoot-out during which Camp Lamentin was cleared without loss of life.
Some fifty people were arrested; Aubin was detained for assaulting a police officer, with others charged with carrying illegal weapons. Intriguingly two Americans - Jason William Petrie (39) of Barberton, Ohio and Steven Parker Shaw (57) of Dighton, Massachusetts - were charged with conspiracy for their part in the rally, after allegedly acting as drivers for rogue army members. In the following days the other camps dotting the country were abandoned, and the “soldiers” melted back into the hills.
Contacted via email in recent days, US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hoeft at Minustah’s Military Public Information Office said things are quiet at the minute, but added that the UN remains vigilant.
“It appears...those paramilitary who expressed their wish to recreate a Haitian army have decided to go home and allow the government of Haiti to proceed on its process of studying and determining the feasibility of a new army,” Hoeft said. “Minustah continues to partner with PNH, conducting joint patrols, looking for all illegal activity.”
The Defend Haiti news service, however, quoted the group’s leaders as saying that theirs was “a tactical retreat in order to continue the struggle for [the] remobilization [of] FAd'H.” “Nobody knows where they’ve gone,” one source recently told me of the rebels’ disappearing act. “They’ve all gone very quiet.”
Ominously, Defend Haiti also reported that Guy Philippe - the rebel commander who led the 2004 overthrow of the government and became an increasingly visible presence as the tension mounted in recent months - had bitterly criticized the PNH for doing the bidding of the UN, which had “humiliated” the Haitian people on Flag Day.
Martelly has since moved to push the army issue to the background, saying that the recreation of the force is not one of his current priorities but insisting that it will be achieved by the time his term ends. It would appear that a combination of international donor concern at the army’s return to a country still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake, the embarrassment caused by the recent fiasco, and urgings from his own experts that he remain patient have for now convinced the president to let the matter cool.
Regular Haiti watchers know, however, that the nation is currently witnessing perhaps its most significant bout of political maneuvering since the build-up to the 2004 coup. As always, and despite the president’s recent backpedaling, the army is front and center.
Elected only after Fanmi Lavalas, Haiti’s most popular political party, was barred by the Electoral Council from running candidates, Martelly’s first year in office can most generously be described as organized chaos.
Starting with the dubious mandate that a 24% initial voter turnout and the Fanmi Lavalas expulsion ensured, he has been for the most part hamstrung by a non-functioning parliament. After prolonged bickering with lawmakers and the resignation of his first prime minister Garry Conille, his fourth choice for the job, Laurent Lamothe, was only installed in recent weeks.
Fanmi Lavalas, which sprung from the now divided Lavalas movement, is the support base of Aristide, who before his 2004 ouster had also been overthrown in 1991. Under the Lavalas and Fanmi Lavalas banners, Aristide had won landslide election victories in 1990 and 2000. Reinstated after US intervention in 1994, he disbanded the FAd’H the following year, establishing the PNH in its place.
The army had for decades terrorized the Haitian people, killing tens of thousands of innocents under the dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude when supplemented by Tonton Macoutes death squads. Later, under General Raoul Cédras’s military junta (1991-1994), groups like the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) paramilitaries were used as the modern incarnation of the Tonton Macoutes, helping the army to wipe out over 3,000 civilians.
A vocal cheerleader against both Aristide administrations during his long career as a kompa singer, Martelly once ran a Pétionville nightclub called the Garage which was frequented by the military/Duvalierist clique. His friendship with the infamous former police chief Michel François, principal death squad organizer under Cédras, is well documented.
Since Aristide’s 2004 removal – which he has called a US-orchestrated kidnapping – there has been a consistent effort to undermine Fanmi Lavalas, mostly via outright repression but also by denying it access to the ballot box.
Aristide has now returned to Haiti after years in exile, but has said he will remain outside of politics to concentrate on education, despite speculation to the contrary. Though no longer credited with the squeaky clean image he once enjoyed, there can be no doubt that more than anyone he remains a symbol of hope for Haiti’s poorest.
In Carrefour, Ansyto Felix, communications officer for Fanmi Lavalas, would not be drawn on the matter of the former leader’s future role.
“I don’t speak for President Aristide but I know he loves his people a lot,” he said. “When there are problems in Haiti, he has problems. Every time blood drips, he feels like it’s his blood. He will talk to anyone; he has an open mind.”
Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier - who ruled Haiti from 1971 until being overthrown in 1986 and fleeing into exile – also returned to the country in January of last year, but a judge has decided that he will face only corruption and not human rights abuse charges. The impunity Duvalier enjoys – ignoring his “house arrest” status to attend various functions around Port-au-Prince – has done little to deflect accusations about Martelly’s coziness with the former dictator’s cronies.
The new army – which Martelly insists is necessary for tasks like border security and to combat drug smuggling - is projected to employ 3,500 soldiers at a cost of around $95 million. It is also thought that a new municipal police force, dubbed a “secret” police, will be formed. In Haiti, of course, the term secret police instantly brings to mind the Tonton Macoutes. Contacted on the possibility of such a unit emerging, Minustah head of communications Eliane Nabaa would say only that the mission “does not comment on speculation.”
Mario Joseph, the renowned Haitian human rights lawyer who runs the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), is a busy man. His phone goes off non-stop as we sit down at his Port-au-Prince office, which has been peppered with bullets as he continues his long and often lone struggle for the rights of Haiti’s poorest.
“He’s doing the same thing that Duvalier was doing,” Joseph says of Martelly. “They’re reporting back to him, giving him information. This is why he’s trying to restore the army. They put a few big guys in there so they could cover the pink army. They’ve recruited the young guys so they can make a militia.” The “pink army” Joseph refers to is Martelly’s following; pink was the chosen color of his election campaign.
“Some of them don’t want the army, but they put him in power illegally and now it’s backfired,” he says of the international community. “Now, Martelly is trying to gain control. The elite people, the army was good for them, but now they have to pay more money for security. We don’t need an army. There is no war here.”
Among those Joseph works with are the women at Favilek (Fanm Viktim Leve Kanpe: Women Victims Get Up, Stand Up), a support group formed in 1993 to represent victims of military and paramilitary violence.
The 80-strong group campaigns for justice for the rapes, torture and loss of loved ones they suffered during military rule between 1991 and 1994. At their offices in Port-au-Prince, three women tell stories almost beyond belief, outlining their fears of what a new army might mean.
“My husband used to travel to the countryside,” says Jean Maricia (52). “I lived in my house with five kids. When Aristide was removed, the military began going door to door. They asked you if you had ID cards, or whether there were any guns in the house.
“The last time they called there were three guys who came. They said ‘where are the men of the house?’ At that time, they were taking out a lot of boys and killing them.”
With no men to be found, Jean was blindfolded and brought to the infamous Fort Dimanche prison. Released eight days later, she returned home to find the soldiers had murdered one of her boys. Bringing food to his grandmother, he had been killed in the street.
“I was shot,” says Suzette Similien (47) abruptly, revealing a jagged scar below her waistline sustained in a shooting in the Canapé Vert area of the city. “They encircled the whole block with cars, and shot at everybody. After that, I went into hiding for five years.
“I was a witness so they wanted to get rid of me. Even by 1997, people were still menacing me. I met a few former soldiers who asked me ‘why are you still here?’ If the military do come back, I’m going to try and leave Haiti.”
The third woman, Marie Francoise St-Charles (48), tells how she herself was raped by a military “attache” - a loose term for paramilitary gunmen “attached” to the military - whilst seven months pregnant. She offers this up only as a footnote, after she has first told of the unspeakable horrors others suffered. That macabre catalogue includes mothers forced to have sex with their own sons, women having children after being raped by soldiers, and others dying of AIDS as a result of such rapes.
Historian Georges Michel, a member of President Martelly’s commission to organize the reconstruction of the army, says he understands the intense fear a great many Haitians have of the military, but insists that relying on at least some ex-FAd’H personnel to form a new force is unavoidable.
“If we don’t recruit old officers from the existing stock then we will have, in three years [for example] a 23-year-old lieutenant-general and that is not acceptable. It would be very dangerous,” he says.
“The decision has already been made. It’s not whether we need [an army] or not. We are an implementation commission. It is a farce to think that the police can do all kinds of security business, especially in a country like Haiti.
“Martelly has less than four years to remain in power, and four years is the bare minimum time for us to implement this [plan]. We were given six months and from the beginning we knew that it wouldn’t be enough.
“When Minustah leaves, if we don’t have a functional military then you will see private military erupt from every corner of the country. When they have overthrown the government, they will fight each other and then you will have Somalia: chaos.”
Is it possible that Haiti can have a new, improved army, one that will protect rather than prey on its own people?
“It will be small, efficient, well-trained and obedient, and it will be able to do its various duties,” Michel insists, but the women at Favilek aren’t convinced.
“It’s the same kind of people,” they say together. “The old guys will just sneak back in and do the same crazy things again.”
“I’m scared,” Jean Maricia says. “I’ve already been introduced to them. You don’t know their hearts.”