U.S. troops become cops on world's worst beat

October 01, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Yesterday's violent clashes on the streets of Port-au-Prince -- coming a day after a half-dozen Haitians were killed and scores wounded in a grenade attack -- once again showed just how dangerous and fluid a situation U.S. soldiers have entered.

They are now cops on the world's most dangerous beat. But as yesterday's violence demonstrated, they're not supposed to get involved.

"The crowd says they love us, but there are people out there tossing grenades," said Spc. 4 Paul King, 27, of Fayetteville, Ark.

"I don't think anyone knows who the enemy is," said Pvt. 1st Class Pete Calvert, 23, of Barstow, Calif.

The attacks provided a wake-up call for what was expected to be a tough, potentially dangerous weekend for the U.S. military -- and for Haiti.

Tens of thousands of civilians gathered downtown yesterday on the third anniversary of the military coup that ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A peaceful march ended with five dead and 14 wounded after Aristide supporters clashed with remnants of the Haiti's paramilitary.

Even more significant, U.S. troops stood by on a perimeter, ceding the inner part of the city to Haitian police and military.

"I can't tell you how frustrating this is," said one U.S. Army sergeant, declining to give his name. "We want to do something. But we are following orders."

Those orders have outraged many Haitians who looked upon the Americans as their protectors.

"The American Army is nothing," said Jackson Joseph, 18. "What are they doing? Why don't they take the guns away?"

U.S. soldiers have been told to expect even more disturbances today and tomorrow.

"You've been to a football game where you've got people cheering for their favorite teams," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Renald Grand-Pierre, a Haitian native and translator. "Someone wins, someone loses.

"Well, here the winner is Aristide and the loser is Cedras. And the fans are still here. Hopefully, the crowd that turns out will be one, together."

Petty Officer Grand-Pierre said U.S. soldiers have to read the crowds with wary detachment, ignoring the cheers and inquisitive stares. "You have to try and keep peace and keep the crowds calm,"he said. "They tend to lose control. You've got to be tactful -- and you've got to understand things."

Rule No. 1 is this: Word of mouth is a potent force, the information highway in a society that has gone without much electricity for years. As yesterday's attacks unfolded, tens of thousands fled on foot, creating a wave of panic that swept through the city.

"The crowd knows what is going on," Petty Officer Grand-Pierre said. "The crowd may be happy, may be festive. But you have to stay alert. There may be a guy out there with a weapon who can change things around in an instant."

From the beginning, Operation Restore Democracy has been fluid. An invasion by force was canceled just hours before the first soldiers were to hit shore. A day later, U.S. troops entered Haiti without firing a shot.

Haitian police and military were first set up as potential enemies of U.S. forces. And now they are allies, even manning some facilities side-by-side with their U.S. counterparts.

But when the Haitian security forces went on patrol yesterday, civilians fled in fright.

"You've got to be very cautious in this situation," said Army Staff Sgt. Marvin Williams, 31, of New York. "Certain elements out there will try to disrupt events. There could be other opportunities for people to escalate the situation. And, I guess, we'll be the perfect targets."

It's enough to confound the most experienced of soldiers.

"This is looking an awful lot like police work," said Staff Sgt. Greg Gagnon, a former New Orleans police officer-turned-Army MP.

The rules of engagement have been modified throughout the operation. On the second day of the occupation, U.S. Army personnel watched helplessly as a Haitian was beaten to death near the city's main dock. But a few days later, U.S. Marines in Cap-Haitien took no chances, killing 10 Haitian security personnel after reportedly being confronted.

"The rules have changed three times since I've been here," said Specialist King, who has been on patrols for a week. "It's difficult to draw the line on when to use the amount of force necessary.

Specialist King and Private Calvert were standing behind barbed wire at the front entry to the U.S. Embassy. The sun was still hot and high in the sky, but the men tightened their sweat-soaked flak vests.

"A day like this makes me glad to have this vest," Specialist King said. "Before all this happened, I wish I could have taken the stuff off. But not now. I'm keeping this on."

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