A parliamentary firefight

October 10 1994

A parliamentary firefight

October 10 1994





Maj. Tony Schwalm stands on the solitary wharf at the deep-water port of Jacmel on Haiti’s south coast, casting a cool professional eye over the U.S. soldiers under his command. There are just over 100

of them and they are busy setting up a temporary home inside a huge abandoned warehouse at the end of the dock. The major is 31, but his black-rimmed glasses and lean, almost slight, physique give him the studious air of someone much younger. On the subject of his origins, he is evasive. “It’s complicated,” he mutters. “Just say I’m from Georgia.” About his troops and their mission, however, he is brutally frank. “This is a special forces unit,” he points out. “We’re like the Peace Corps with guns. We can be the good guys if we get

the right kind of co-operation. But if we don’t, we’re in a position to do an awful lot of bad.”

In towns and villages all over Haiti last week, plain-spoken soldiers like Schwalm, more than 15,600 in total, were beginning to settle in. They are the razor-sharp cutting

edge of what promises to be a long and difficult attempt to rebuild the shattered Caribbean nation. Under any conditions, the task would be daunting given the destitute poverty of the vast majority of Haitians and the near-total collapse of the country’s infrastructure since the 1991 military coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But in Haiti, where violence is endemic, there may well be no other means to achieve the goal of reconstruction than to place the main thrust of the effort in the hands of gun-toting professionals, as prepared for bloodshed as they are to assist in the recovery.

Certainly, the still-unfolding American military occupation of Haiti has not brought an end to the killing that has plagued the country since Lt.-Gen. Raoul Cédras and his fellow coup-makers seized power. On Sept. 24, 10 Haitians, all members of the security forces, died in a brief 15-second shootout with a squad of U.S. marines outside a police station in Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second-largest city. On Sept. 28, two more died on the streets of the capital, Port-auPrince, when armed “attachés” of FRAPH, the self-appointed political arm of the outgoing military regime, shot into a crowd of pro-Aristide demonstrators outside the party’s headquarters. The following day, five people were killed and more than 40 injured in the capital when grenades were hurled into the throngs that habitually gather outside

the main entrance to the city’s seaport. And on Friday, at least five people were killed and 14 others wounded by gunfire in another clash outside FRAPH headquarters. “Such brutal acts of violence are not totally unexpected,” said U.S. Ambassador William Swing as he deplored the incident at the port, “because the enemies of democracy will resort to any ends and any means to stop the democratic process, particularly now that it is clear to them that the trend is moving against them.”

At the port last week, it was a scene of utter chaos in the moments immediately after the grenades exploded around midday on Thursday. Dead and wounded lay scattered in spreading pools of blood under the feet of a wildly milling mob that was screaming, sometimes for help, sometimes for vengeance. Two dead men lay in a tangled heap of torn flesh and shattered bone on one curbside. A third sprawled nearby in the middle of the roadway, eyes staring sightlessly skyward. Further down the road, five others—all men—writhed in pain at the foot of a wooden lamp post, bleeding profusely from what appeared to be shrapnel wounds on their legs and lower bodies. “It was a bomb. They threw a bomb at us,” one of the injured said in Haitian Creole as he lay on the ground, surrounded by five sweaty, nervous infantrymen from the U.S. army’s 10th Mountain Division.

Other witnesses confirmed the wounded man’s report. “I heard at least one explosion, maybe two,” recounted a middle-aged man, frantic with worry over a brother he had lost contact with in the confusion that followed the attack. Refusing to identify himself, the man said he had been thrown to the ground by the press of the crowd in the wake of the explosion. “I hope to God that nothing’s happened to my brother,” he added, before rushing off in the direction of an ambulance that, sirens wailing, was attempting to push its way through the crowds.

Amid the confusion, the American forces arrested two people. Both were apprehended when U.S. troops blasted their way into a seafront warehouse believed to be the location from which the grenades were hurled. One of those arrested is an officer of the controversial Port-au-Prince police force.

The U.S. military occupiers of Haiti clearly still have some distance to travel before achieving the officially stated goal of making the country safe for democracy. But the effort continues, not without some measure of success. Last week, for example, Haiti’s elected parliamentarians managed to gather for the first time in 16 months, albeit under the watchful eye of an overwhelming presence of U.S. troops. Soldiers, dug in behind rolling barricades of razor wire, surrounded the whitewashed legislature close to the seafront in Portau-Prince. Nineteen pro-Aristide deputies from the 82-member lower house and five senators from the upper chamber came out of hiding for the event—10 of them flown into the country from self-exile in the United States and Canada. True, the legislatures did not make much headway in the effort to draft the amnesty bill that is a key part of the deal former U.S. president Jimmy Carter negotiated with Cédras, who agreed to resign by Oct. 15. But they did meet and, as one U.S. diplomat noted: “That is a notinsignificant happening.”

An even more significant event occurred the following day when U.S. troops oversaw the reinstallation of Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul. Although he has been in and out of hiding, chiefly in the U.S. embassy, since the 1991 coup, Paul remains a popular figure in Haiti. If not a wholehearted ally of Aristide, he is nevertheless an enemy of those who have been wielding power for the last three years. He may someday come to rue the prominent role U.S. troops played in his return to public life. But for the moment, there is widespread euphoria about the mere fact that he is back.

It was almost certainly Paul’s return that sparked last week’s grenade attack on the crowds at the seaport. The incident occurred behind city hall and just after the mayor delivered an emotional address, broadcast over loudspeakers to the crowds waiting outside.

But while Paul’s reappearance and the reconvening of parliament are signposts on the road to Haitian reconstruction, the real struggle to rebuild the country lies ahead. By any gauge, Haiti is in dire straits. The raw statistics are as familiar as they are bleak. The nation is the poorest in the Western hemisphere with a per capita annual income of less than $350 and an average life expectancy of a scant 54 years. The infant

mortality rate is appalling: 110 children out of every 1,000 die at birth, compared with seven in Canada. Of those that live to preschool age, more than half suffer from malnourishment. In the rural areas of the island, 97 per cent of the population is without electricity. Between eight and nine per cent of the population is infected with the AIDS-producing HIV virus. More than 80 per cent of the formal workforce is unemployed. In the words of one Western ambassador: “The place is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a total mess.”

The coup three years ago has made things immeasurably worse. According to Ross Mountain, the United Nations’ humanitarian aid co-ordinator in Haiti, international donors have frozen more than $500 million in development aid, “robbing the public sector of critical investments, particularly in the health, water, agriculture and public-works sectors.” Corruption, contraband and tax evasion have reduced tax revenues by 39 per cent. Political oppression has brought enormous pressure on a host of grassroots organizations, curtailing their work in mobilizing such programs as vaccination campaigns, garbage removal, family planning, fruit-tree planting and well digging.

Addressing Haiti’s enormous array of problems is not going to be easy. But some measure of progress is required. “Expectations are pretty high right now,” says Mountain. “There’s going to be a lot of disappointment unless at least a few of these hopes are fulfilled. If we leave too many unfulfilled, the situation could get dangerous.”

The difficulty is knowing where to start. There are, however, some obvious points of departure. One of the first involves the reformation of Haiti’s police force—a task for which Canada is well-placed to offer a helping hand. An advance contingent of what is planned to amount to more than 100 volunteers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was expected to arrive in the country this week. Once the Mounties are in place, they will play a key role in the joint effort by the United Nations Mission in Haiti and the International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program, a scheme operated by the U.S. department of justice. Under this program, the RCMP will both monitor existing Haitian police operations as well as help to recruit and retrain an entirely new force.

There are even plans to establish a police academy, modelled perhaps along the lines of the Mounties’ training college in Regina.

Before that or any of the other planned reconstruction programs can be implemented, however, a secure environment has to be established on the ground. And that is where professional soldiers like Maj. Schwalm and his troops

enter the picture. With a carrot in

one hand and a very large stick in the other, Schwalm and his unit last week embarked on the large and arduous process of restoring life to Jacmel, a once-pretty but now decaying town of 16,000, about 200 km east of Port-auPrince. The major’s mission is twofold. “We’re

going to advise and professionalize the locally based units of the Haitian armed forces,” he says. “At the same time, we’re going to assist the civilian population in rebuilding the infrastructure around this place.”

Like all special forces units, Schwalm’s

troops are equipped to handle both tasks. Many, in fact, wear the flashes of the Rangers and other elite U.S. fighting units on their jungle fatigues. But they are also trained to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the local populace. There are engineers in the unit, as well as medical doctors, teachers and linguists. “We are as much interested in cultural conquest as we are in taking and holding territory,” says Schwalm.

Last week, Schwalm’s troops were busily engaged on two fronts. Patrols—on foot and in the U.S. army’s ubiquitous HUMVEE four-wheel-drive vehicles—circulated through the town’s streets and rode herd on the Haitian army and police units at the local military barracks, in particular a pair of notorious characters accused of many of the killings that have taken place in Jacmel in recent months. At the same time,

other special forces units were trying to repair Jacmel’s hydro-

electric generating station, the town’s only source of power, which has been out of commission since last May. “If we turn on the lights around here, a lot of other good things will happen,” Schwalm notes. “It’s not a bad way to start.” Not bad at all. □