Bad memories all over town once run by 'Saddam Hussein'

October 11, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

LES CAYES, Haiti -- He called himself Saddam Hussein.

He was the most feared of the local Haitian security forces who terrorized this rundown city by the sea.

In August, he allegedly cut off Eric Vervil's left ear and made him eat it. He also carved his initials in Mr. Vervil's buttocks. All because Mr. Vervil supported exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"I am the one who Saddam Hussein beat up," Mr. Vervil said, sitting in the darkness on a lumpy mattress.

Mr. Vervil is now in an infirmary at the local military headquarters and the Haitian sergeant known as Saddam Hussein is in the custody of the American troops.

"This place is the worst," said U.S. Army Special Forces Capt. Bob Bevelacqua, 29. "The infrastructure of their military has fallen apart here. Now, we're doing stuff that the police and military would do."

Les Cayes, 120 miles west of Port-au-Prince on the southern peninsula, is a symbol of the violence and corruption that plague Haiti.

The local police and military forces have fled.

Reports of human rights violations have U.S. soldiers digging for mass graves on a beach and letting prisoners out of a desolate jail.

There is no water, no electricity and no work.

The city of 116,000 is virtually shut down. And it is now in the complete control of the U.S. military.

"This is the most bizarre Special Forces mission," Captain Bevelacqua said. "We're under peacetime rules of engagement. And in some situations we're almost at war."

Signs of a war are everywhere, from the rocky, ruined streets to the crumbling buildings to the abandoned cars.

The main police station is a charred shell, burned and looted by outraged locals who smashed the front doors and pulled desks and files from the smoldering building.

Now, there are graffiti on the walls of the station and youngsters who a month ago feared even to walk in front of the police, ride bicycles through the abandoned building.

Barbed-wire barriers block the main road as American soldiers wearing surgical gloves frisk every passer-by, including women and children.

There is a tension here unmatched even in Port-au-Prince.

Even as he stood in front of a dummy of a Haitian military man, Pierre Amerlin said: "If the U.S. Army thinks of leaving this country, we can just say goodbye, because the Haitian army will kill us."

Les Cayes is a place where the bad blood of the past lingers.

For days after the invasion, American and Haitian military leaders bickered with one another. Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras had one Haitian leader replaced. But the tough talk -- and action -- continued.

"The police were beating people up," Captain Bevelacqua said. "Hell, the police were beating them up when we got here. We said, 'Hey guys, this has to stop.' When we leaned on them they decided to do something to us and it backfired on them."

The Haitian military took aim at the Americans and a U.S. soldier was shot and wounded while in the bathroom.

After the incident, the local police and military vanished.

"It has gotten a lot calmer," Captain Bevelacqua said. "We don't have as many calls of domestic violence since we put curfew on them. The people seem to want peace."

To many here, the Americans represent hope. Captain Bevelacqua, an earnest, no-nonsense 29-year-old from Attleboro, Mass., has been trying to sift through rumors to uncover facts on life in Les Cayes.

"We heard there were executions the night before we got here," he said. "Then we get into the chasing ghost routine."

The Americans are trying to uncover the existence of mass graves. Thus far, none has been found.

The Army cleared the jail, though, labeling 38 of 48 inmates as political prisoners.

"Prisoners had been on bread and water, some for four years, and some hadn't been let out of their cells," Captain Bevelacqua said. But the Americans now have at least one prisoner, the man known as Saddam Hussein.

They found him by accident. The Haitian soldier appeared on their doorstep, bloodied and beaten by a crowd. Without pTC knowing who he was, the Americans stitched him up and were prepared to send him on his way.

"Three local nuns came in and just about died when they saw him," Captain Bevelacqua said.

That's when the Americans knew they had the most feared member of the local police force in custody.

"His big thing was to cut off people's ears and make them eat them," the captain said. "Abuse of power. Black magic. The whole bit. There is so much of it around here."

Now, the Americans are trying to clear away the past. But for Mr. Vervil, his left ear cut to half its original size, his buttocks scarred, the past may never be forgotten.

"The Americans are now the ones who know what can be done," he said. "I hope they give me enough money to leave here."

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