U.S. military recruits refugees as 'liaisons' to Haitian people HAITI: ON THE BRINK OF INVASION

September 16, 1994|By James K. Bock | James K. Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The expected U.S. invasion of Haiti was the excited talk of detainment camps here yesterday as hundreds of Haitian boat people volunteered to be "liaisons" between the U.S. military and Haitians during the operation.

Creole-speaking U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines put out the word to Haitian camp leaders at breakfast time that the invasion force was looking for a few good Haitians to help out after the expected assault. Lines of volunteers quickly formed, and Haitian detainees compiled long lists of their compatriots' names.

Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Williams, commander of the joint task force handling the influx of nearly 45,000 Haitian and Cuban boat people to this U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba, said the group chosen would become "liaison officers to the multinational force" being readied for an invasion.

He said the State Department would select a group of 1,000-1,500 from the volunteers. State Department officials arrived yesterday in a government jet to begin screening volunteers. The officials were unavailable for comment.

Jean-Claude Petit, a Haitian refugee leader, said 1,200 volunteers had signed up at Camp 1 alone, one of seven camps where the Haitians are being kept on the base. He said he was told the volunteers would first help maintain order after an invasion, then be sent to rural areas to assist the occupying army.

"Our decision is to help our president [Jean-Bertrand Aristide] to take back our country," he said. "Everybody here has put his name."

Lt. Chip Pearce, officer in charge of the seven Haitian camps near the eastern shore of Guantanamo Bay, said about 200 volunteers would be picked from each camp.

He said applicants must be physically fit, between the ages of 18 and 40, and able to read and write French and Creole, the Haitian language. About 80 percent of Haitians are illiterate.

Jacques Belzy, a Camp 1 resident and former computer science student in Haiti, said that he didn't understand exactly what the volunteers' role would be in Haiti but that he signed up anyway. "I want to take part . . . because I want to go back to my country and continue with my education," he said.

Although the recruits were described here as "liaisons" with U.S. soldiers, officials in Washington said another key purpose would be to serve as "police trainees," who would help maintain order and assist international police monitors after an invasion is under way.

Those monitors, being supplied by a number of countries, are supposed to watch the conduct of Haitian police, record incidents and visit prisons to prevent a new outbreak of human rights abuses by supporters of Father Aristide once the military leaders who toppled him leave Haiti or are ousted in an invasion.

The officials, in an effort to counter fears of a pro-Aristide paramilitary force, stressed that the recruits would not be armed.

The man picked by Father Aristide to run the screening, Pierre Cherubin, raised eyebrows in Washington because of allegations human rights abuses and drug trafficking while he was police chief in Haiti during the Aristide regime.

U.S. officials have heard the charges, but a State Department official said yesterday, "We have no independent information or evidence to support these allegations."

Haitians and Americans on the team have veto power over which trainees are chosen. Rumors spread at Guantanamo that the volunteers would form part of a new Haitian police force. But Creole-language announcements on the camp's public address system told residents that the assignment was not police work, but community relations.

Most of the 14,400 Haitians at Guantanamo have been crammed in hot, dusty tent cities for more than two months. They are anxious for a change.

Each camp has elected leaders for single men, single women and families -- leadership that the United States could put to use under occupation. It was unclear whether there was any pressure on the Haitians, either from the U.S. military or their camp leaders, to volunteer.

The Haitian migrants appear generally to support a U.S. invasion. But their enthusiasm is tempered by fear that relatives might suffer casualties in an assault or at the hand of forces loyal to Haiti's military leaders.

The boat people, some of whose tents were recently issued radios by the U.S. military, listen to Creole-language news broadcasts over the Voice of America and on the camp's newly established Radio Creole. They eagerly anticipated news of President Clinton's address to the nation last night about Haiti.

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