Haiti: where a human life is worth 5p

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The Independent Online

Saint Marc, Haiti

"People die for nothing here all the time. But this is the first time I've seen someone shot over a gourde."

Frank Norbury, a staff sergeant in the United States Army Special Forces, had just helped to quell a near-riot in a village 60 miles north of the capital, Port-au-Prince. He was talking about the incident that sparked the riot: the shooting of a bus conductor by an off-duty policeman over a single gourde, the Haitian unit of currency, worth about 5p.

Celestin Nene, the 26-year-old conductor on the gaily-painted tap-tap bus had asked the officer of the new US-trained Haitian National Police for the standard 13-gourde fare. The policeman, 20-year-old Revelus Kender, refused to give him more than 12. An argument ensued. Kender hauled the conductor on to the village's main street and fired at him on the ground.

When we arrived minutes later, hundreds of villagers were demanding justice, burning tyres, barricading the main street and yelling abuse at nervous Honduran troops of the UN peace-keeping force. "You're protecting a murderer. Go home," they screamed.

Sgt Norbury and US Special Forces Captain Garth Estadt, dripping with survival and combat gear, had arrived to help keep an angry mob from storming the local police station, where Kender had fled.

It might have been just another shooting in Haiti but it was the sort of spark the Haitian authorities and their US and UN protectors fear could ignite serious disturbances in the run-up to Sunday's presidential elections.

The fledgling police force has already been criticised for a series of trigger-happy incidents (and the fact that it still includes members of the hated, military-led former security forces).

A group of 88 from 2 Battalion, 3 US Special Forces, is playing a key role in remote areas of central and northern Haiti, patrolling rugged terrain in 4-wheel drives, on mountain motorbikes and even on horseback. Despite the angry red graffiti of "Yankees, Dirty Dogs, Pigs" on Saint Marc village walls, the US troops are generally well-received.

The graffiti may have been painted by those who accuse the Special Forces of siding with Haiti's former military or militia chiefs against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's leftist government.

An underground American publication called The Resister and claiming to be "the official publication of the Special Forces underground," recently reported that Special Forces in Haiti were working with ousted Haitian officers and members of the disbanded militia known as the FRAPH or Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti.

Sgt Norbury, 38, and an 18-year Special Forces veteran, denied it. "Not in this area. Maybe somewhere else." But his theory as to the role of American and UN troops here reflected the feelings of many of his colleagues.

"We're just like a temporary wind blowing through here. While we're here, they can sleep at night. We're basically their security blanket. But democracy's not for everybody. Haitians are going to solve their problems the Haitian way. Always did, and always will. Their way has always been vigilante justice.

"The bottom line is that if Haitians hadn't been reaching our shores on leaky boats, we wouldn't be here. Soon we'll be gone.

"You can only keep a life-support system going so long then you have to pull the plug. When we leave here, our only legacy will be the empty MRE (food rations) packets we leave behind," the sergeant said.