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Danger arises from all quarters in Haiti

Published June 23, 2005

MIAMI - A friend recently began sending me copies of her family's personal e-mails from Haiti.

She wanted me to get an insider's glimpse of how desperate things have gotten down there, asking only that I not publish any names.

The correspondence reveals a scenario more shocking than I imagined, tantamount to a total breakdown of society and the outbreak of urban, class war.

Security has so totally collapsed that armed gangs now operate with impunity, carrying out brutal carjackings, home invasions and kidnappings in broad daylight. U.N. peacekeepers who took over security in Haiti a year ago after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seem powerless to stop the violence.

In one e-mail, a middle-aged businesswoman described how families have become virtual prisoners in their homes in recent weeks due to the uncertainty of when armed criminals will strike.

"Every day you go out, you wonder if they'll kidnap you, since there are many every day, and some (of the victims) are people you know," she writes. "So when will it be your turn?"

Police confirm up to 10 reported kidnappings a day. In the great majority of cases, families do not bother to contact the police. Haiti's tiny and ill-disciplined force is already hopelessly overwhelmed and lacks the proper training to negotiate ransoms. Many Haitians also suspect - with good reason - that corrupt officers are involved in the crimes.

Among the latest kidnapping victims earlier this month: a husband and wife seized as they were opening their pharmacy business; a woman and four children on their way to school; and the former head of protocol at the presidential palace.

Cases run from relatively minor carjackings to the most brazen and horrific assaults. One man had his pickup truck seized at gunpoint and was told he could buy it back for $20,000. He negotiated the price down to $10,000, only to have the pickup stolen again two weeks later.

Some homes are no longer safe, either. In one case in the capital, armed men raped a woman and her 10-year-old daughter, then kidnapped a 9-month-old baby.

In another case, a 60-year-old woman was kidnapped, stripped and tortured. Her captors warned that Haiti's light-skinned, mixed race elite were all now targets.

Much of the violence is attributed to gangs from Aristide's slum strongholds, who appear to be conducting an orchestrated destabilization campaign to scuttle elections due later this year.

Aristide loyalists have broadcast hit lists of their targets - bourgeois businessmen - on the radio.

Victims also report that some of the kidnapping rings use safe-houses in middle class neighborhoods, possibly with ties to police and other businessmen involved in drug trafficking.

The sad truth today is that violence is coming from all sides, according to a recent report by the highly respected Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which monitors Haiti. While pro-Aristide groups may be sponsoring some of the violence, it noted that "extreme urban poverty" and the failure of public institutions were just as much to blame.

In the 17 years that I have been covering Haiti, it's hard to recall a more desperate situation than exists today.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

When U.S. troops were sent to Haiti last year after Aristide's fall, there was hope the country might be put back on the democratic path. Those hopes proved short-lived.

The U.N. peacekeepers say they were not prepared for this kind of urban war. Nor were U.S. officials. Late last month the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince announced it was downsizing. It recommended all American citizens leave the country, even advising on the safest routes to get to the international airport, which is surrounded by slums. This week Canada also warned its citizens not to travel to Haiti.

Efforts to improve the security situation are being made. International donors met in Montreal last Friday to speed up delivery of $1.3-billion in financial aid pledged to Haiti. The United Nations also voted Wednesday to beef up its peacekeeping mission with 1,000 troops.

But judging by the e-mail I have been reading, hope is wearing thin. Businesses are closing. School is out, and everyone who can is escaping to spend time with relatives in the United States, Canada or France.

One e-mail ends: "One almost has the impression of being suicidal if you decide to stay."

[Last modified June 23, 2005, 00:47:00]

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