YOU CAN believe President Bush on Haiti. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater recently said the State Department had investigated claims that refugees who the U.S. has returned to Haiti have been persecuted. Fitzwater said, "We have no evidence that there is that kind of brutality."
Or you can believe Alan Tomlinson of National Public Radio and Nathaniel Sheppard of the Chicago Tribune.
Tomlinson and Sheppard went to a mountain village they heard had been burned because its peasants supported the ousted, democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The village was three hours by car and two by foot from Cap Haitien. At the site were the charred remains of 120 houses.
They were told that local "enforcers" extorted money from villagers. Tomlinson said, "The entire system of repression that had existed before Aristide" was back in rural Haiti.
One gun-wielding "enforcer" and 20 henchmen with machetes took Tomlinson and Sheppard captive. The reporters and their interpreters spent the night negotiating freedom.
NTC "No sooner did we think that we'd won this guy over," Tomlinson said, ". . . an enormous man with an even bigger gun burst onto the scene with another 20 guys with machetes. This was the man who'd actually burned down the village, and he'd come looking for us. We spent the next few hours of the night sitting under arrest while these two local enforcers argued about whether they were going to hand us over to the military or whether they were going to kill us.
"These people were perfectly prepared to kill us and burn our jeep. They admitted they burned the village. The guy who wanted us killed appeared to have come out on top. He boasted of the fact that he killed people in these villages. I had given up at that point . . . They started to beat our people who were with me with sticks."
Just then, some soldiers arrived who perhaps understood the political ramifications of two dead American journalists. They set Tomlinson and Sheppard free.
The U.S. is playing a ruthless game of semantics. It talks only about unproven claims of violence specifically against refugees who have been captured off the Florida coast by the U.S. and returned to Haiti. It has returned at least 3,400 refugees to Haiti.
As for the general terror in Haiti, a U.S. official told the Washington Post, "We are not a human rights monitoring organization. The U.S. Embassy can't check who has been killed or not killed. We're not going to go ask them all, 'Are you still alive?' At what point do you stop? After two months? After four months? After six months?"
After his close call in Haiti, Tomlinson said, "Either the United States is turning a blind eye to the reality of oppression in this country or its completely ignorant of it . . . Seventy percent of Haiti lives in the countryside.
"We talked to people also in Cap Haitien, which is the second-largest city in the country. And we found whole streets boarded up where people had just fled. Soldiers come around these neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods every night, shooting and warning the women if they find their menfolk on the street they'll be shot or beaten. Anybody who is an avid supporter of Aristide, who voted for him, who just lives in an area that has been fervent in its support is in danger.
"It's either quite cynical of the U.S. government or just inept of their officials here on the ground not to know this. You don't have to go very far to see what's going on. If you go as far as we did, in a field trip right out into the wilds, then you really come across the sharp end of it."
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.