Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Haitians distrust disarmament program

BROKEN PROMISES A few dilapidated weapons were surrendered to peacekeepers on Wednesday, but people say they want to see more constructive changes in return


A US-backed campaign to disarm Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ouster is running up against distrust, insecurity and a history of broken promises to Haiti's poor.

The campaign, which began this week, seeks to stabilize Haiti as a new government tries to impose order following a three-week rebellion that led to Aristide's departure on Feb. 29.

"If they want us to give up our guns this time, they better give us a good reason," said Jacques Pierre, who lives in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil. Residents there surrendered about 50 pistols, rifles and machine guns on Wednesday in a symbolic gesture brokered by French troops.

"None of us want to fight anymore, but we are tired of living like we have," Pierre said.

The small pile of rusted, taped and dilapidated weapons was the first to be formally surrendered in the disarmament campaign, a reminder of what US-led troops tried and failed to accomplish nearly a decade ago.

Unlike then, when money was offered for weapons used by gangs and former soldiers, Haitians today are being asked to give up their guns with little or no incentives.

"I gave up my pistol, but if we don't start seeing schools and clinics in our neighborhood, we'll find other weapons. We'll fight for change with machetes if we have to," Pierre said.

Aristide said he was forced out by the US, which denies it did anything but help save the embattled leader's life by arranging a flight to the Central African Republic. Aristide has since flown to the nearby island of Jamaica to be reunited with his wife and children.

An interim government took over this week, but it will take months to rebuild a shattered police force and disarm groups who began the insurgency and loyalists who vow to keep fighting until Aristide returns.

With scant resources, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue is turning to a US-led multinational task force to help police secure the country.

But the scenario is vastly different than what it was in the mid-1990s when more than 20,000 US troops came to Haiti to restore Aristide to power after a 1991 coup.

US troops -- which number less than 1,800 now -- have recovered only two shotguns and their Chilean counterparts have confiscated three weapons.

At least six Haitians have been killed in clashes and one Marine was shot in the arm.

In the meantime, the French -- who are better equipped to communicate with French and Creole-speaking Haitians -- have taken a proactive stance in working with police to talk with residents in pro-Aristide strongholds.

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