Michael Norby and Brian Fitzpatrick, The Gurdian
UN and Haitian government officials are scrambling to find a peaceful way to disarm a rogue group of former soldiers demanding the immediate return of the Haitian armed forces, 17 years after the country’s notoriously brutal army was disbanded.
A brazen group of ex-soldiers, some of whom are remnants of dictatorships which used the army to terrorise the people, is attempting to force the president, Michel Martelly, to enact campaign promises to reinstate the army.
The group is thought to number between 2,500 and 3,000 and has set 18 May as a deadline.
“We’re not joking around,” said Larose Aubin, a former army sergeant, at a recent press conference. “We’re going to come with force and with the population, and we will get what we’re looking for. Even if we lose our lives, we will fight. They can’t kill us all.”
Another former sergeant, Yves Jeudy, said: “After 18 May, if the government hasn’t done anything, they will see what happens. We’re not going back and they need to give us an answer quick. We’re running out of patience.”
Although they began training immediately after Martelly’s inauguration last year, the former soldiers upped the ante this February by seizing abandoned army bases throughout the country. Since then, armed men and women in military fatigues have paraded in various towns, performing traffic stops in full view of Haitian national police and UN troops.
Martelly intends to proceed with the creation of a new army and has appointed a presidential commission to do so, but the plan is expected to exclude all but a few from this rogue element and is still a few years away from completion.
An effort to disperse the former soldiers by offering the leaders their long-owed military pensions and back pay has not been successful. Most of the young recruits are ineligible for this scheme.
Matters escalated on 19 April when up to 50 men in uniform – some armed with hand grenades – arrived at the parliament building and disrupted a legislative session discussing the ratification of the prime-minister-designate, Laurent Lamothe.
The leading Haitian human rights lawyer Mario Joseph said Martelly’s promises on the army’s return had created a vacuum being filled by opportunists.
“It’s the president who created the whole storm,” he said. “He’s set it up perfectly for violence. A lot of people want the army to come back because they think they can get jobs from it. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into.”
Labelling the turn of events Haiti‘s “little monster”, the UN stabilisation force for Haiti (Minustah) spokeswoman Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg acknowledged that although exhaustive measures were being taken, the situation was deteriorating.
“Things are now moving fast and we are discussing it with the government,” she said. “We are in a very sensitive situation and we have to make sure that we keep it as stable as possible.
“As with every peacekeeping mission under chapter seven [of the UN charter], force is the last resort. But we are monitoring the situation very closely and we will not let anyone destabilise the country.”
If force is ultimately needed, chapter seven approves military action when peace is threatened. But just how the Haitian people would react to armed intervention from the 7,500-strong UN force is of grave concern.
Since arriving in Haiti in 2004, Minustah’s reputation has been tarnished by violent incursions into Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods such as Cité Soleil and Bel-Air, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Matters have been compounded by the conviction of two Pakistani peacekeepers for rape and last year’s cholera outbreak, which many suspect was brought to Haiti by Nepalese blue helmets.
The upshot, according to Georges Michel of the presidential commission, is that the rebel soldiers are more popular than the UN peacekeepers.
“The people are with them,” he said. “This would be a major catastrophe for President Martelly if he calls upon Minustah to crack down on them. They will be seen as heroes and Martelly as the villain. So a peaceful and political solution must be found.”
Martelly returned to Port-au-Prince on Monday after spending two weeks in Miami for treatment for a blood clot on his lung and it is thought that a decision on how to deal with matters is imminent. The group has now ignored repeated orders from the president to lay down arms.
Minustah analysis suggests the group is not very well armed, yet when asked if his group had access to sufficient weaponry, Jeudy seemed amused. As his men repeated a chant of “freedom or death!” the veteran gave a bold response.
“We’re military,” he said. “And you know what a military can do.”
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