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8853: Washington Post Style Section Article 080701: Slavin (fwd)
Detours on the Road to Democracy
By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2001; Page C01
CAP-HAITIEN -- We spotted the smoke from the first roadblock about 4:30 p.m.
We were approaching the village of Trou du Nord on the main washboard road
between Cap-Haitien and the Dominican border. The acrid soot from the burning
rubber billowed above the stalled anthill of Haitian traffic -- trucks
overflowing with homebound workers, market women sidesaddle on donkeys, cane
field laborers, machetes in hand.
"Why are they burning tires?" asked Roberta, photographing the three truck
Michelins aflame across the two-lane road.
"It's a political warning," I said. "In the days before Aristide took power,
informers against him were 'necklaced' with a gasoline-soaked tire and burned
"I doubt if it's that serious," said Pat, a Nebraska-born grandmother who has
worked for six years in Haiti as a medical missionary. "Necklacing is actually
pretty rare. Roadblocks like this are a fairly frequent form of protest. It may
be about something local, like a truck hitting a child."
"What will happen if they get hold of the driver?" Roberta said.
"They'll kill him," said Clark, our navigator and back-country guide. He has a
deep and abiding love for Haiti and its people and has worked throughout this
grotesquely beautiful, fascinating land off and on for 20 years. But he has few
illusions about how bad things can get.
Haiti is always at least surreal. Life goes on with incredible spirit amid
incredible poverty. Traffic continues to flow on impassable roads. Beauty
blooms with an almost religious insistence in the eeriest and most brooding of
landscapes. The social apocalypse always about to happen appears magically
suspended by the power of mangoes, voodoo and flamboyant trees.
The barricade was flaming with menace in Trou du Nord, but the roadside crowds
nearby didn't look menacing or even angry -- just wary. Most were peddling
fruit or drinks or waiting for some sort of ride.
Clark steered Pat's pickup onto a tiny side street barely wide enough for us
and one oncoming bicycle. After a one-block detour, we bumped back onto the
main road and figured we had dodged the crisis.
A few miles on, near Limonade, we met another roadblock. This time there was no
way around. The shoulder fell away on either side, and skull-size rocks and bed
frames had been piled on the pavement. There were fewer people around, but one
of them, a young man in his early twenties in a gray T-shirt, appeared highly
A slightly older man in a white shirt was trying to calm him down and move
enough rocks to open one lane. They argued about whether to let the SUV ahead
of us through. White Shirt reached to move a stone.
"Get as close as you can so we can follow that car through," said Pat. But Gray
Shirt pushed the stone back in place, and there we were, four blancs in an
air-conditioned four-door pickup,immobilized as the roadside audience of
desperately poor Haitian onlookers slowly grew.
The sense of unease wasn't racial. Whites in Haiti typically meet little
hostility, far less, for example, than in a place like Nassau. They are usually
treated as a politically and socially benign economic blessing, typically with
shy courtesy or opportunistic eagerness. The word "blanc" in Creole means
"non-Haitian," white or black, and the child who shouts "Blanc!" when he sees
you does so in the same tone he might use for anything unusual, like maybe a
frigate bird. Or a two-headed calf.
But the economic circumstances of even the humblest blanc are so far above the
desperation conquered daily by the average Haitian that any prolonged
confrontation with a crowd can be unsettling. Luckily Pat and Clark spoke
Creole, and, with her French, Spanish and Portuguese, Roberta could usually
"Why don't we ask what this is all about?" I said.
"It's better to wait until we see someone we know," Clark said. "If they see
we're patient, they'll eventually let us through."
He seemed to be right. After a few minutes White Shirt convinced Gray Shirt
that we weren't part of the problem, and they moved a big rock and let us
"Merci, monsieur," we called cheerfully. But Gray Shirt looked back
We'd spent most of the day surveying archaeological sites on Haiti's northern
plain near the Dominican border and had seen and heard no hint of trouble. Nor
could we glean anything from Haiti's normally gossipy radio stations. So Clark
decided a pit stop at a nearby mission station might be in order. The two women
returned with a report that the bridge into Cap-Haitien was blocked also. The
roadblocks appeared to be related to some sort of an attack in Port-au-Prince
-- another brushfire in the chaotic and incendiary politics that has racked
Haiti periodically for more than 200 years.
This time, reportedly, at least one policeman had been killed and several
wounded, and some hostages taken. The identity of the attackers remained vague.
Some said they were young thugs in army uniforms financed by drug money --
Haiti's latest disaster; others said they were former army officers trying to
retake the government from the popularly elected, if unstable, administration
of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Whatever the cause, the blocked bridge was serious. Almost all traffic in and
out of Cap-Haitien passes over a fetid canal east of the city along a bridge
always swarming with carts, bicycles, market women, goats, children, donkeys
and the crowded, gaily painted "tap-tap" buses. The bridge overlooks a teeming,
smoky charcoal market that resembles some Dantesque circle of Hell.
The only obvious alternative to the bridge would involve a major backtrack and
detour over equally questionable roads with possible roadblocks in even more
We decided to press on.
The next roadblock was near the wooden shacks that serve sporadically as the
Cap-Haitien airport. By this time trucks and tap-taps were giving up and
turning around in front of us, and we were pushing through large crowds of
brightly dressed pedestrians, many bearing baskets of charcoal or bananas on
their heads. Most appeared as curious about events as we did. Nobody appeared
Through the acrid smoke from the burning tires Pat spotted a man she knew. He
came over calling out cheerfully to us in Creole, and embarked on a long and
excited narration with much gesturing. Since our truck had four-wheel drive, he
said, there might be another way for us: a little-known shortcut to something
called "the SOS road."
At his direction we headed down a crumbling path between a mildewed concrete
wall and an appalling ditch. Led by two goats and an extremely moist pig ("Road
hog!"), we paralleled the ditch for several hundred yards perpendicular to the
main highway, then, with Pat at the wheel, negotiated a potentially life-ending
crater and mounted onto concrete.
"Hey!" I said, mindful of the haphazard, uncontrolled nature of Cap-Haitien air
traffic. "Aren't we driving down the runway?"
"Not exactly the runway itself," Pat said, unperturbed. "This is the extension
the American Army built in 1994 so they could get their big cargo planes in
here. It's the best concrete in Haiti."
Beside us entire families pedaled blissfully on bicycles.
"Oh, I see where we're going," Pat said, spotting a distant disappearing
Toyota. "This is the one bridge you can always count on. It never washes out
even in hurricanes. The French built it in the 1700s."
We mounted the humpback stone structure where a halfhearted roadblock of brush
had been pushed aside and, as the sun went down, bumped through narrow back
streets into the western side of town. Soon we were on the main road from
Limbe, which continues west and south (sort of) all the way to Port-au-Prince.
We were almost to our little hillside hotel and a much-anticipated glass of rum.
Then we crept around a corner into a dark and crowded intersection lit by
The burning tires stretched across the potholed pavement to meet a barrier of
angle irons on the left. On the right they ran up against a concrete phone
pole. Between the phone pole and a concrete building people streamed on foot,
bicycle and occasional motorbike, end-running the roadblock with apparent
We had no such luxury. As we contemplated what to do, the Mitsubishi SUV in
front of us rolled boldly forward and over the flaming tires by the phone pole.
He made it through, but his passage seemed to anger the burning rubber. Flames
mounted higher and we knew we would be fools to follow.
We were hemmed in now. Vehicles had stopped behind us so we couldn't turn
around. A few angry young men were tending the roadblock, adding iron pieces,
determined to let no one through.
"At least we know it's possible to get through there by the phone pole when the
flames go down," I said.
"But there are people and kids walking past on the other side," Pat said. "I
can't see just where they are with the smoke and the flames, and I'm terrified
of hitting somebody."
One teenager pounded on the car and said he'd let us through if we gave him
money. Clark politely declined. "Once you start down that road, you're really
lost," he said.
Minutes went by. Suddenly, an enormous dump truck lurched around us and gunned
straight for the roadblock.
"He'll scatter things!" Clark said. "Follow him through!"
But the high body and huge wheels sucked the flames higher as the truck broke
through. Once again we were trapped.
"Maybe we could just knock the angle irons out of the way with the bumper," I
"They could puncture our tires," Clark replied. "We sure don't want to try for
it and not make it. The best place is there by the phone pole, when we go. At
least you've got a diesel truck here, Pat. It's far less dangerous than trying
it with gasoline in the tank. But I still say let's wait."
It was getting darker, however, and the crowd was growing.
Somebody struck the car with his hand.
"Just ignore him," said Clark.
Then an angry young man picked up a heavy metal bar and began clanking it
against the curb.
"He's just trying to scare us," Clark said.
"He's succeeding," said Roberta.
The flames were starting to die down a little, but the smoke was just as thick.
We urged Pat to go, but she hesitated. Then Roberta saw the man with the metal
bar filling a Molotov cocktail.
"Pat, we have to go for it," we all said at once.
Setting her teeth, she gunned the engine straight for the fender-high flames
near the phone pole. We bumped through them and swerved in the smoke to miss a
mother and child and a motorbike. Then we were through the crowd and home free,
racing down nearly empty streets toward the waterfront.
"Praise the Lord," said Pat.
We picked our way through a minor, unguarded barrier of scattered large rocks
and made it to the hotel, where two guards paced warily out front brandishing
Later we would learn that three attacks on police stations in the country had
left five officers dead and 14 wounded.
Government officials, claiming an opposition plot, had urged countrywide
mobilization and arrested 39 opposition leaders. Four other opposition members
would flee to political sanctuary in the Dominican Republic.
But all we knew last week was that we'd made it home.
"You told me you were a missionary, not the Evel Knievel of Cap-Haitien," Clark
said to his pint-size companion. "Do the Baptists know they finance a
"What are you talking about?" Pat said with a grin. "This was just your typical
day in Haiti."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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