Living in squalor, waiting for Aristide's return U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 24, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti -- Lemieux and Silianne Alexandre Pierre and their six children are typical supporters of this country's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When he returns, courtesy of the U.S.-led military intervention, they hope to join thousands of other poor Haitians dancing in the streets.

To get to those streets they must clamber down two flights of crumbling rock and concrete steps, and descend a steep path with an open drainage channel.

Their home is a three-room concrete block hut, with bare concrete floor and tin roof, substantial enough by the standards of the Haitian poor, but crude testimony to the subsistence living endured by most of this country's 6.5 million citizens.

The most pleasant feature of the home is its tiny courtyard with a sloping coconut palm, which is just now bearing fruit. The tree's trunk is worn smooth by generations of feet resting on it on hot, humid days.

Over the chest-high concrete wall you can see the French colonial-style Presidential Palace, sparkling white in the noon sun. It was over this wall that Silianne Alexandre Pierre, 62, the family matriarch, wife of a $40-a-month messenger at the tax collection agency, watched her hopes for a better life --ed by the military coup that came on the evening of Sept. 30, 1991.

As the lights of Port-au-Prince suddenly went out that night, she saw the flashes from the guns of the soldiers of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras as they attacked the palace and ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the populist priest who had promised the masses more and threatened the elite with less.

"Whenever there is a coup d'etat, they turn out the lights," said Mrs. Pierre. "That lets them shoot a lot without people being able to see exactly what is happening.

"I was shocked. I just went inside and boiled some herbs and drank it. I didn't do anything. I just started to pray that the country could be calm. Then I tried to find out what was going on. If I had to save my children, I wanted to know what to do."

There are four Pierre sons -- Lemithe, 38, Michelet, 30, Kesnel, 28, Jean Wills, 27 -- and two daughters -- Linda, 30, and Marie Alexandre, 20.

All except Lemithe and Michelet, both married, live at home. All, except Marie, the youngest, have high school diplomas with specialties ranging from accounting to computer operation and typing. None has a job.

"This is the worst time, because to have a son who finishes school and has a diploma and that diploma is hanging somewhere, but he can't find a job, can't buy a pair of shoes to go out in. That's hard."

During the military dictatorship she has also worried about her sons' safety. No family members have been killed, but the sons of some of her friends have been shot.

"That's the reason I cannot live in peace," she said. "It is because I have young men. I know they can get killed. If they die it's going to be worse for me."

The family lunch, the only meal of the day, was vegetable soup with boiled black beans. It was set out on a table covered with a plastic cloth in the dining-living-parental bedroom. The charcoal was heating in the burner across the yard.

There was no other food in the house. Before the coup, according to Mrs. Pierre, ingredients for the soup would have cost 12 cents.

Yesterday they cost $2. The beans, which cost 30 cents a pound three years ago, now cost 75 cents.

"I don't have money to buy other things for the meal," said Mrs. Pierre, a short, solid woman in a plain blue robe. Standing under a chalk-scrawled biblical quotation on the wall of the living room-parental bedroom, she said: "I live in the name of God because I know God will send me somebody to give me something to be able to cook."

To supplement her husband's income, she regularly peddles fabric in the bustling streets of this humid and dirty capital. The last sale she made was Sept. 16, when a woman wanting to make a new dress bought two yards of rayon for $5.30. Mrs. Pierre had paid $5 for the material. Her profit: 30 cents, six days ago.

The coup came at a bad time for Kesnel Pierre. After months of looking for a job, he had finally been promised work by the director of public services in Les Cayes, Haiti's third-largest town. The director, Jean Jackson Ratteau, was killed in the coup. Mr. Pierre's job never materialized.

"Aristide will not do anything for me especially," said Kesnel Pierre yesterday, still idle at home three years after the coup. "But he will do something for the country."

Like his mother, he said he felt that the populist priest was not given time to introduce the reforms needed to improve the lot of the poor in this most divided of societies before he was ousted.

As two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters whirred overhead, Mrs. Pierre jumped to her feet, waved and smiled, saying: "I feel joy because before I couldn't sleep. Now, I'm sleeping in peace."

The helicopters have awakened the beautiful Occile, 26, the doe-eyed wife of Michelet Pierre. Heavily pregnant with her second child, she has received no prenatal care.

"Maybe tomorrow will be better. Now things are not so good, but when Aristide comes back perhaps they will improve."

Her husband, Michelet, who campaigned for Father Aristide's election, said: "You know when Aristide returns thousands of Haitians will die. You know what will kill them? Happiness."

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