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8853: Washington Post Style Section Article 080701: Slavin (fwd)

From: pslavin@unicefusa.org

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 
understand it.

"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 
distant locations.

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 
pump shotguns.

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 
flame-jumping granny?"

"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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