Marine landings meet surreal Haitian welcome U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 21, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAP HAITIEN, Haiti -- Rosie Eugenie stood barefoot in the dirt front yard of her concrete block home, the incessant whir of U.S. helicopter engines whining in the background, her family and friends gathered around her as she shouted out: "So, America came in. You don't know how happy we are."

She was smiling, broadly and beautifully on the hot afternoon as, two blocks away, Marines stood grim-faced behind barbed wire.

"We are happy these men are here," she said. "They are going to deliver us from all this. Our suffering is over."

Yesterday, Operation Uphold Democracy came to a backwater lot, to Haiti's north shore and the nation's second-largest city. It wasn't an invasion. It was an extravaganza. Some 1,500 soldiers of a projected force of 1,900 came ashore by helicopter and landing craft as thousands of Haitians stood cheering along the beaches, atop roofs, by an airport tarmac, and even in small fishing craft that bobbed near five American ships.

It was yet another surreal scene in a campaign that mixes American force and, for now, Haitian warmth.

"We got here, and we almost got attacked by a cow," said Cpl. Aaron Scott of Peru, Ind., among the first Marines at the airport.

Not a shot was fired. Not a person was killed in the peaceful landing.

A Haitian named Harold Jean, who wore a "Jesus, please save me" baseball cap, smiled as one American helicopter after another circled overhead. He said: "We just got hit by a miracle."

It was a gorgeous day for an invasion: American amphibious ships anchored three miles offshore, framed by a Caribbean blue sea and a rugged mountain range. The operation was perfectly orchestrated, from the six helicopters that lifted off the USS Wasp at 7:40 a.m. and touched down at the airport 20 minutes later, to the Hovercraft producing rainbow spray as they carried in tons of weaponry.

But it was also weird. American landing craft had to run a slalom course past a dozen fishing boats. Marines had to shoo away throngs of onlookers.

Just 32 hours earlier, the Marines were prepared to seize Cap Haitien by force before a deal was brokered to create a peaceful transition to a new Haitian government.

The Marines were relieved, though somewhat perplexed by the ever-changing environment, which saw Haitian police and military controlling the large crowds that showed up at the airport and the downtown port facility.

"The Haitians think we're heroes," Chris Thompson, a 22-year-old platoon leader from Charlotte, N.C., told his men moments before they marched into helicopters aboard the Wasp. "Their bad guys aren't bad anymore. They're helping us out."

The first Marine wave didn't face any fire -- just thousands of delirious Haitians.

"We had to push the crowds back to get the vehicles through," said Lance Cpl. Michael Beckett of Davin, W.Va. "I never in my wildest dreams expected so many people to be out here."

The Marines took no chances, however. They dug foxholes at the airport, they set up sharpshooting posts at the port. And they regulated foot traffic over a rickety wooden bridge with two armored vehicles.

"It was just strange," said Cpl. Adam Shenkler of Little Rock, Ark., as he sat atop the tank-like vehicle. "The landing beaches were nasty, dirty. But the people were cheering. Gosh, it was like a parade. We could barely move up and down these streets."

This is no paradise, of course.

The leaders of Cap Haitien, a city of 65,000, once dreamed of luring tourist dollars with a new port and a 9,000-foot landing strip. But the port now lies virtually barren, 10 rusting ships tied at the harbor dock. The runway is only half-completed, with three commuter planes parked in tall grass and a broken-down plane just off the runway. The Americans now control both sites.

Cap Haitien itself is a poor, dusty little city made up of ramshackle shacks, two-story pastel homes and crumbling villas sprawled on the mountainside.

Yesterday, three Brahma bulls grazed in a vacant Hertz car-return lot. Sugar cane stood burning on dirt plots between homes. Men congregated in an empty Esso gas station. And overpowering all was a stench coming from the bay, which is used as the city's main sewer system.

"Here, you're dealing with a whole country in poverty," said Lance Cpl. Rudy Bueno of New York. "All you have to do is look at the people. Would you want to live like this? All these people want is to live in peace."

Despite the poverty, the city has found a way to sidestep the United Nations embargo. Allendy Achille, the harbor master, said that nearly 20 ships, many from South Florida, have come to Cap Haitien, delivering rice, beans, flour and soap. Some in the city say that guns also have been delivered illegally.

"Gasoline costs $14 a gallon," he said. "A small carton of milk is $1.50. So is a bar of soap. Things are very bad."

But there appears to be some level of rising hope. Mr. Achille was among those who greeted Americans at the port. "I hear things will be better for us," he said. "We have plenty of problems here."

In the hours after the landing, music echoed from bars and residents walked the streets.

"I want to know when the Marines are going into town," said Hens Rabhaeli, 21, who wore a T-shirt with a peace symbol and gazed at the Marines across barbed wire. "The people respect them. And they want to applaud them. We support these guys for the democracy."

But not all is well in Cap Haitien, a city with a reputation for being more genteel than the capital in the south, Port-au-Prince. There were several reports of Haitian police beating civilians. The U.S. military began forming an unlikely and wary alliance with 350 local police and military officials.

"No interviews," a Haitian policeman said as he cradled a wooden baton in his hand. "We have orders. We're just doing our part here. There are no problems with the Americans."

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