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a117: In today's Haiti, `normal' life has been lost (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

In today's Haiti, `normal' life has been lost

GRANDE-RIVIERE-DU-NORD, Haiti -- As a child visiting Haiti, I loved to play 
in the river. I would secretly empty my grandmother's clay pitchers and 
declare there was no more water. Then, just as I had carefully planned, I 
would be asked to go and get some from the river.

As far back as I can remember, this is the image I've always associated with 
Haiti. It represents a simpler, safer time.

No more.

While the world listened Monday to news about an attempted coup at the 
National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, I was hidden away inside 
a house along with my mother, an aunt and six cousins. We were ducking for 
cover as our house was bombarded with rocks.

Ours was one of about a dozen homes in this northern rural village attacked 
throughout the day by a machete-wielding, gun-toting mob. They were 
supporters of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas 
Family party. Throughout the country, Aristide backers took to the streets 
on a revenge rampage, attacking and torching homes, after the government 
fought off an apparent coup attempt during the wee hours of the morning.

My mother and I, in town for her sister's funeral, learned about the attempt 
about 5 a.m. Monday. We were preparing to make the hourlong trip into 
Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, to catch a flight to 
Port-au-Prince to head back to Miami.

But we were turned back by residents who reported there was no way out. A 
roadblock had been erected. Old cars sandwiched between boulders had been 
set on fire to prevent vehicles from entering and exiting the town. We were 

The next few hours would be turbulent. School officials -- acting on orders 
from the town's mayor and his assistants -- canceled classes for the day, 
turning the streets into a chaotic scene. Hundreds of uniformed school 
children raced into the streets, looks of confusion on their faces, as older 
siblings and parents grabbed their hands and raced home for cover.

Down the road, the town's market emptied out as poor merchants scrambled to 
pack their belongings and run to the river for refuge.

My cousins and I watched in disbelief, not realizing that we too would soon 
be running for safety as the mob attacked our home with rocks. ``This is 
democracy,'' my aunt said repeatedly, in despair. ``This is democracy.''

I am not sure why my cousin's house was attacked. She is not a member of the 
opposition. She is just someone who struggles to survive on the equivalent 
of $100 a month.

My mother, who has spent more than half her 65 years in this rural province, 
would later try to put it into perspective. ``In all my years of living 
under the Duvalier dictatorship,'' she would say, ``I never experienced 
anything like this.''

The violence that has marred cities like Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien has 
finally found its way into the interior -- into the countryside, the place 
that is supposed to be the safest.

No more.

As I listened to rocks hit the walls and smack the wooden windows, I 
thought, ``Thank God for the wood.''

Then I thought about how vulnerable we all were. There were no working 
phones in the province. Cell phones didn't work, either. No electricity. Not 
even radio news after a

while. Threatened by supporters, radio broadcasters ceased their broadcasts 
early in the day, leaving us ignorant of what was happening.

When the rock throwing finally stopped and the gang moved on, we cautiously 
stepped outside. A cousin and I snuck off to survey the damage around us. A 
makeshift bureau of the Convergence opposition alliance located a few yards 
from our home had been ransacked, its glass windows shattered, its doors 
torn off; everything inside -- desks, chairs, a car battery, phone -- had 
been removed and set on fire outside.

Fortunately no one was hurt.

Another couple wasn't as lucky, an opposition alliance member would later 
tell me. They were at home when the mob arrived and were beaten down in 
their yard.

The opposition member, who did not want to be identified for fear of his 
family's safety, was returning home when the mob arrived at his house and 
bombarded it with rocks. He sprinted into town, praying his 87-year-old 
mother would be all right. She found cover on the floor.

Still confused about why our house -- my cousin's house -- was attacked, I 
thought about what the opposition member said. This wasn't just about going 
after known members of the 15-party opposition alliance. It was about the 
zero tolerance that has been plaguing Haiti recently, resulting in several 
deaths -- including that of Haitian journalist Brignol Lindor.

``They went after people who don't have the same ideology,'' he said. In 
other words: If you are not with us, then you are against us.

By Monday night, the mob eventually grew tired of firing guns, wielding 
batons and singing about how it would visit misery upon anyone in 
opposition. As my cousins and I sat in the dark living room -- still 
grieving for my aunt -- we grieved for the untold numbers who would also 
die. ``If there is no light again tonight, a lot of people are going to 
die,'' my 10-year-old cousin said.

I don't know how many, if any, died Monday night. On Tuesday morning, when 
the first bus came into town, signaling that routine had returned, I 
realized just how bad things were.

Along the 18-mile stretch between Grand-Rivire and Cap-Haitien -- a trip 
that takes an hour because the roads are so bad --I counted 21 roadblocks. 
They caused motorists to zig-zag around huge boulders, old cars and car 
tires -- some of which were still ablaze.

Otherwise, life seemed to have returned to normal -- with merchants 
balancing their wares on their heads, heading into town to see what little 
they could make for the day, and with children going to school.

But I knew, my mother knew, that ``normal'' no longer exists. This was a new 
Haiti. A place where the river was no longer safe enough for a 5-year-old to 
venture on her own to play in the sand, digging for a water hole.

Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles spent her early childhood years between 
the Turks & Caicos, where she was born, and Haiti.

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