Desperate Haitians vote with their fleet

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The Independent Online
THE SHADOWS are growing long, but the four men are not finished with their labour. They are among only a few in Haiti still with work to do. Here on a remote beach an hour south of the capital, Port-au-Prince, they are building a large sailing boat. The hull, made from the wood of mango trees, is complete. Now they are fashioning the long, humped deck.

Just how many vessels there are like this being built all around the Haitian coastline, nobody is quite sure. As new international sanctions came into effect against the country this weekend, there was evidence of a gathering exodus of 'boat people' fleeing towards Florida. More than a thousand refugees were intercepted at sea by the US coastguard and repatriated last week - more than in all the first four months of the year.

Here on Ca Ira beach - a poignant French name that roughly means 'It'll be OK' - the boat-builders are wary of journalists' inquiries. Last week the new army-backed president, Emile Jonassaint, declared that anyone helping Haitians flee would be punished. For anyone to speak openly about the sailings is to run the risk of arrest, but they concede that this boat could soon be among those bearing human cargoes towards America.

One who has already made the journey and was repatriated from Miami is Fritz Picaou, who is also on the beach, carrying sacks of charcoal to a nearby village. Charcoal-carrying is his only means of income. His wife is about to give birth and he fears he will not be able to support her and the new child, so he may consider trying the voyage again.

'Maybe yes, maybe no,' he muses, standing with us on the unfinished deck, looking out to the ocean. 'It depends on the situation, see. But I think now this embargo come things are going to get worser and worser.' He tries to explain the desperation he and most Haitians face. 'If you got no money, you don't eat. If you stealing, they shoot you. If you don't steal, you eat grass. So there's nothing to do.'

These men speak only reluctantly about the political situation. To criticise the military regime is dangerous. Everyone is fearful of the Fraph - Le Front Pour L'Avancement et Progres Haitien - a countrywide network of thugs hired by the military to repress supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted by the regime in a coup in September 1991. When they do talk, Haitians are uncertain about what should happen. Any suggestion of an American invasion is not greeted enthusiastically by these men. But they say they would welcome one if it would guarantee the return of Aristide.

'Since Aristide left, we have only bad life,' says Mark, one of the carpenters. 'We have children, but no food. It's so bad.' Though these men know little of the embargo, they do understand that President Clinton appears not to know what to do about the crisis. 'He talk, but he do nothing,' says another.

Ann Fuller, of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, confirms that the numbers departing are rising rapidly. Given the deteriorating human-rights and economic conditions, she is not surprised. She says another crucial factor was the announcement by the Clinton administration that it would shortly resume the screening of asylum-seekers on the high seas, ending the current practice of automatic repatriation.

To allow offshore screening, Washington hopes to start using a leased cruise liner from Ukraine, perhaps this week, and it has been discussing with Britain the possibility of anchoring the 700-passenger ship in waters off the Turks and Caicos Islands.

'People are desperate here,' says Ms Fuller. 'People were leaving even when it seemed 100 per cent sure they would be sent back. Now more will be leaving; I think that's self-evident.'

If the numbers continue to mount, the cruise vessel - and President Clinton's policy - could quickly be swamped. That could in turn force the White House into taking the decision for an invasion.

By that time, this boat will probably have been lifted from its wooden scaffold and made its perilous trip towards Florida. If intercepted, its short maritime life will quickly be ended. All vessels like this found by the coastguard are set alight and destroyed at sea.

(Photograph omitted)

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