Haitians in resort town celebrate disarming, roundup of militias

October 04, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

JACMEL, HAITI -- It's not every day in paradise that a U.S. Army helicopter swoops in overhead and a demanding voice comes echoing out of the sky, announcing that the bad guys have to show their weapons . . . or else.

"I kind of figured something was going on," said Jane MacRae, a Canadian expatriate who has lived here for 20 years. "I was doing the laundry for the U.S. soldiers, but I decided to come out and watch."

What was going on yesterday was this: accounting for the weapons of the Haitian security establishment.

In Port-au-Prince, there were spectacular shows of force and raucous crowds as U.S. soldiers raided paramilitary caches. But in Jacmel, a faded tourist town of 17,000 nestled between lush mountains on Haiti's southern coast, rounding up all the security forces and accounting for their nearly 200 weapons was cause for a party.

There was a woman selling grapefruit. There was music from a blaring radio that filled the main plaza even as U.S. Army special forces personnel held tight to M-16 rifles. And there was a crowd that cheered every time a Haitian police officer or soldier was led away in plastic handcuffs -- even though no arrests were made.

Mrs. MacRae, silver-haired, 50, dressed in a floral frock and carrying a straw handbag, looked on in utter astonishment.

"I mean, things like this just don't happen here," she said.

Nearby, Jacques Lapin, a 45-year-old Haitian who lives in Philadelphia and who was visiting his birthplace, shook his head in agreement.

"It is unbelievable. Nobody expected this, to see Haitian soldiers in handcuffs," he said.

But it was all just a show, to keep the crowd from attacking the soldiers, while also providing publicity for a weapons-for-cash program, according to special forces personnel.

On the whole, Mrs. MacRae said, the sweep wasn't all that necessary. In Jacmel, the citizens know their bullies.

"We're a small town," she said. "Everyone knows everyone else. Even our military, they were essentially good guys. They had been cooperating with the American troops.

"We know our Tontons Macoutes," she said, referring to the dreaded paramilitaries who have been terrorizing Haitians for decades. "We can live with them. We know how to deal with them. I have a neighbor, who turned from a Macoute into a military attache into a FRAPH. His kids wear torn clothes. He fixes bicycles. We talk all the time," she said.

As the roundup continued, Mrs. MacRae kept talking about the Jacmel of old.

She arrived here 20 years ago with her husband, Max, purely by chance. "It was spring break, and the only flight we could get was to Haiti," she said. "So we came here and never left. It was like stepping into another era."

Her husband retired. She opened a home for handicapped children. Life was grand.

Jacmel was still something then, still living off the past glory that began when the U.S. Marines landed in 1915 and turned the place into a boom town. When the Marines left, the dictators transformed Jacmel into their favorite tourist spot.

There were candlelight marches on Christmas Eve, swank parties and an endless tourist summer of hustle and bustle.

"I'm sorry, but we haven't had a good day here since Duvalier left," Mrs. MacRae said, referring to former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Now, the town is shuttered and cluttered. The electricity went off in May. There is no running water. Hardly anyone has a job.

Claude Raymond Douge once ran a guest house, but said, "I'm closed on account of the U.S. embargo."

Not even a booming smuggling trade with the Dominican Republic could prop up the economy.

"We had so many tanker trucks running back and forth with the goods, they called us Kuwait," Mrs. MacRae said. And just like in the Persian Gulf war, when the Americans arrived here nine days ago, the crowds cheered.

"The devil could come in this town and be received well," Mrs. MacRae said. "You'd have to do something really bad to make us angry. Right now, it's great having the U.S. Army here. It's just like an invasion of tourists."

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