Haitians flood streets upon Aristide's ouster

News brings expressions of joy, celebratory gunfire and outbreaks of looting

March 01, 2004|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - First word came as the shrill morning calls of roosters were echoing yesterday off the walls of shantytowns and villas in this still slumbering Caribbean capital city.

Within minutes, there were explosions of celebratory gunfire, happy cries of "ca y est!" - "it's over!" - and outbreaks of looting by mobs. In the wealthy hillside suburb of Petionville, scores of boys and young men sacked an abandoned police station, carrying away police helmets and shields, thermos bottles and battered file cabinets.

The flight into exile of Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide early yesterday under international pressure brought Haitians by the thousands into the streets to display their joy, but also to wreak great violence and destruction. For some Haitians, it was an occasion for sober reflection about what the future may bring to their impoverished and troubled nation.

"He wasn't able to finish his term," said Hugues Contin, 48, an operating room technician who said he works in New York to earn a better wage. "And if Aristide wasn't able to do it, nobody will. The Americans better be ready to return to Haiti every two years to rescue a fallen president."

On a wild, hot and sunny day in Port-au-Prince, mobs looted the police headquarters and tried unsuccessfully to drive a fire engine away from a firehouse.

Looters by the hundreds - from fresh-faced girls who looked no older than 5 to wizened men - pillaged shops and then scattered like beetles, stumbling over debris and dropped booty, when police struck at them with rifle butts and metal rods or fired into the air.

Haitians have a special term for a frenzied, mindless rampage of theft and destruction - dechoucage - coined to describe the widespread disorders that erupted after the departure of dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986 for exile in France. That they were forced to use the word again yesterday was a bitter pill for many.

"The people are poor and very illiterate," said businessman Yves Torchon, 46, as he watched scores of boys and men sacking the two-story police headquarters in Petionville. "They don't understand what they are doing. They don't understand that it's their property and will have to be replaced. But I understand them. They have been tyrannized."

"Thank you, Aristide!" shouted one young man as he struggled to lug three filthy mattresses out of the Petionville jail.

In a country where two-thirds of adults lack formal jobs and average daily income is less than $4, the temptation to plunder from a disgraced and fallen regime was perhaps understandable, and people could be seen throughout the day in Port-au-Prince carrying propane gas cylinders, car batteries, camouflage uniforms, computers, refrigerators, bouquets of flowers, armfuls of clothing and other presumably purloined goods.

Riding atop dump trucks and pickups, or running in packs and waving leafy tree branches, Haitians of all ages thronged the streets to fete the ouster of a leader who was once popular but who many felt evolved into a dangerous and corrupt tyrant.

"I'm here to show I'm happy," said one demonstrator, Zo Katlens, 25. "I had to leave home and sleep elsewhere at night because the chimeres [bands of pro-Aristide thugs] were looking for me."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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