At first the smoke billowing from the national penitentiary in the Haitian capital seemed of no consequence.
On Dec. 1, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting Haitian President Boniface Alexandre. The UN peacekeeping force in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince was preoccupied with guarding the national palace where Powell's visit was taking place. But meanwhile, in the prison, something terrible was unfolding.
According to official reports, prisoners in a three-storey cell block called "Titanic" had rioted, breaking free from their cells, setting fire to mattresses and brandishing water pipes as weapons.
Prison guards called in a special police unit to help put down the uprising, and officials later said that seven prisoners had been killed and more than 40 detainees and guards wounded during the fracas.
But according to prisoners and others interviewed by the Observer, this is a woeful understatement. The government, they say, is concealing a savage bloodbath in which dozens of detainees were killed by police and guards.
The allegations are contested by officials but, if true, the killings at the penitentiary represent another black mark for Haiti's interim government, which has come under fire for allegedly perpetrating and tolerating human rights abuses ever since taking over last March from the ousted former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"I saw everything," said Ted Nazaire, 24, a prisoner who was released two days after the riot and is now in hiding. "It was a massacre. More than 60 were killed."
Nazaire said police opened fire on the detainees, and then went from cell to cell, forcing prisoners into a passageway and methodically executing them.
He claims to have witnessed the killings while hiding under a staircase. When he was later found, he said, he was badly beaten by prison guards and warned not to talk about what he had seen. His family members complain that police harass them in their home nearly every day in their search for Nazaire, who at the moment walks with a limp, is covered with finger-length lesions and has a swollen left eye and a bump on his forehead.
Prisoners' estimates of the number killed range from 40 to 110.
"I saw more than 30 dead people with my own eyes," said Frantz Rubin, a detainee whose cell has a view into the passageway where prisoners allege many of the killings took place. "We want justice."
Prisoners and police say the riot was motivated by the decision to transfer some detainees to another penitentiary, combined with mounting frustration at the slow progress of their legal cases. Only 17 of around 1,100 prisoners at the national penitentiary have been convicted of a crime, and many detainees have not seen a judge.
Penitentiary warden Sony Marcellus dismissed the accusations made by Nazaire and the other prisoners as lies and exaggerations.
"The prisoners will never tell the truth," he said. "[The guards] are trained to shoot in the air, not at prisoners. They would never fire on prisoners in this way."