In Jacmel, life begins with electricity U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

October 06, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

JACMEL, HAITI -- For five months, they lived by the light of the sun.

In a town without power, there were no televisions to watch and no refrigerators to fill. There was only the eerie glow of flickering candles and the sight of women preparing meals on charcoal embers.

"I think civilization will come back," school principal Jean Yves Bourcier said as he contemplated what electricity would mean to Jacmel. "To read," he said. "To come back home and have light. All of this is important. We speak about great ideas. But small things are the most important. Electricity is a small thing, no?"

Electricity is a start.

The Americans are here now, and the power is not far behind. They locked up the guns. They turned on the power station. They showed the Haitian army who was in charge.

A U.S. Army special forces unit of 30 men, hunkered down in a slice of the Haitian countryside, seems to have done nearly everything right.

But there is so much left to do.

"We've got to get past the bad blood," U.S. Army Maj. Tony Schwalm said as he stood at his base -- the tennis court of a crumbling casino that was abandoned when the gasoline ran out and the electricity went off.

"There is so much pain here," he said. "We're still here, and we're going to be here for a while. But we can't eat the whole enchilada in a day."

In Jacmel, change will come slowly. This is not Port-au-Prince, the big bustling, violence-prone capital to the north. There is a calmness here that matches the beauty of the aqua sea and the emerald mountains.

The town is pro-Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the ousted president. The military is compliant. But there remains tremendous hurt here.

Listen to Major Schwalm, a 31-year-old with thick glasses and Georgia accent, as he describes Jacmel.

"This was a beautiful town," he said between drags on a cigarette. "But the beauty belied the problems within. The infrastructure. The water. The power. The law enforcement."

Jacmel, the tarnished tourist jewel, has fallen on hard times. The factories are closed. The shopping areas shut. The streets a crumbled mess.

The United Nations embargo has left the town an economic ruin.

"This was probably a nice little place at one time," said Staff Sgt. John Terzin, 30, of Buffalo, N.Y.. "Now it's just a run-down town where people mill about the streets looking for something to happen. I think the crowds are intimidated by us, which is good."

The Army special forces team landed with a flourish 10 days ago, dropping from the sky in helicopters and seizing control of the town simply by moving into the open.

"The people are our security," Major Schwalm said. "If the people didn't love us, we wouldn't last five seconds."

A message of change

For now, the Americans are beloved. For a week, they ran joint patrols with the Haitian military. But Monday they sent the message of who was really in charge when they put the Haitian military weapons under lock and key and handcuffed a few recalcitrant soldiers.

"This sent the message to everyone that change is coming," Major Schwalm said. "We're going to protect everybody. No retribution. No vengeance. No necklacing. Just everyone get along."

And that includes the U.S. and Haitian militaries. They came within hours of fighting one another, stopped only by the successful mission of former President Jimmy Carter. Now, they are allies -- of a sort.

"Psychologically, we have been through a tremendous spin," Major Schwalm said. "A few hours difference, and things would have changed."

Now Major Schwalm works beside Col. Diderot Sylvain, 44, the local Haitian commander.

Colonel Sylvain, too, was prepared to fight. Now he is ready to accommodate the Americans, he said, even though, "I don't really understand what they came to do here."

The colonel said he respects the Americans. And he said he understands why they seized control so quickly and efficiently.

But he, too, is hurt, forced to watch as U.S. soldiers handcuffed some of his men as townspeople looked on. "I am humiliated," he said.

"I think the cooperation will be good," he added. "I hope it continues the way it started. But I know when a strange army comes to a country, it is like an occupation, after all."

Colonel Sylvain said he "doesn't mind seeing people clap their hands for the U.S. Army."

"In a while, they will run after the U.S. Army, saying they don't need them. The U.S. Army will force the Haitians to do things the American way, and the Haitians won't listen."

Major Schwalm said he is trying to avoid dictating the town's lifestyle.

"Haitians have to help themselves," he said.

On Monday, Jacmel appeared to be trying to get back to normal, even as Army helicopters soared overhead.

Carpenters used hand tools to carve bedposts in a workshop. An iceman showed up at the marketplace, which was filled with fruits and vegetables gathered from the nearby countryside.

At the Centre Alcibiade Ponnayarc School, 650 students gathered for classes. There was noise in the play yard and the joy of learning in the air.

'We have to fix everything'

"We like the Americans here," said Edzer Moailles, 18. "If they have come here to change the system and help us, then it is good."

"We are waiting for our president to return," said Jean-Marie Emmilienne. "But one man cannot put democracy back. Both sides have made mistakes. All we would like now is to have a better life. We want the electricity back."

Power appeared to be everything.

"Without electricity, we cannot live. We cannot drink. We cannot see a movie," said Dr. Harry Jolicoeur, director of the local hospital. "We have to fix everything. But we have to start with something."

On Tuesday, Army engineers poured in 41,000 gallons of diesel fuel and kick-started the idle power plant as hundreds stood by cheering and singing.

Even though it would be days before the first lights would come on, there was finally hope in Jacmel.

Jean-Louis Pascal, his eyes filled with tears, cried out: "There is no life without electricity. Now we have life."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.