Haiti's tragi-comedy of terror: Calypso band turns up the volume to drown sound of gunfire as citizens shun corpse-strewn streets

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BUT FOR the fact that the roads have got worse and the poor have become poorer, Graham Greene would think he had never been away. The entire cast of his Sixties novel The Comedians is alive - if not all well - in Port-au-Prince. Only the names have changed.

For Tontons Macoutes - a Creole term meaning 'bogeymen' - read 'attaches', Haiti's latest equivalent of what Panama's Manuel Noriega liked to call his 'Dignity Battalions'. The latter had a liking for steel bars. The attaches prefer dealing death and intimidation through the barrels of guns.

Like their Macoute predecessors, the attaches, so-named because of their apparent close attachment to the police and military, like to work night-shifts. Sporadic gunfire echoes around the Haitian capital nightly, mostly in the slums with such optimistic Haitian names as Cite Soleil (Sun City).

As I write this on my hotel terrace, bursts of automatic rifle fire pop somewhere to the west. Photographers grab their equipment and rush off to check it out. The Caribbean band pauses only briefly, then restarts more loudly than ever to drown out any further bangs.

People disappear. Some are found, their corpses not always intact. In many cases, the attaches and the old Tontons Macoutes are one and the same. A headless corpse was found the other day. At first, police feared it was the body of member of parliament Samuel Milord, a supporter of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was thought to have been kidnapped on Wednesday night. It emerged that Mr Milord had merely gone into hiding, like many other pro- Aristide politicians.

Some are holed up in the home of the Prime Minister, Robert Malval, which has become a mixture of fortress and sanctuary in the face of constant death threats and following this month's murder of the Justice Minister, Guy Malary. Not being a member of parliament, the man discovered as a headless corpse will go down as just another statistic. The chopped-up body of a woman was also found last week. Her crime? Apparently that she was the nanny to another Aristide supporter.

Missing from Greene's days is the 'Papa Doc' figure, the nickname given to longtime dictator Francois Duvalier. Current military chief Raoul Cedras, although the man in de facto charge of the country and blocking the return of Father Aristide, hardly qualifies. His political life is unlikely to be a fraction of the dictator's 14 years in power. Whether or not Fr Aristide returns, Lieutenant-General Cedras's days of power look numbered.

From his mustard-painted headquarters opposite the deserted presidential palace, it is Port-au-Prince's police chief Michel Francois who appears to be pulling most of the strings. Apart from his 1,500-strong police force, Lieutenant-Colonel Francois controls many lucrative local industies - the electricity company, the port authority, the cement company, the car insurance business.

Last week, he and Lt-Gen Cedras were listed by the US Treasury Department among more than 40 Haitians whose visas were blocked and assets in the US frozen. The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control went as far as publishing Lt-Gen Cedras's Miami address. Given the number of Haitians in Miami, many pro-Aristide, the future security of that particular home appeared in some doubt. The Treasury Department move will hit Haiti's latest strongmen hard. They do not live badly here. But for them life without Miami and their dollar bank accounts may prove difficult to tolerate.

No one can prove who is behind the attaches. But most bets are on the so-called Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, known locally by its acronym FRAPH. It is probably no coincidence that the word is pronounced French-style, without the H, and the group is therefore known as Le Frap. In Creole French, that could mean 'The Blow' or 'The Strike'.

Greene would have had little patience for the conduct of the big US TV networks here, whose presence on the streets has encouraged orchestrated anti-Aristide demonstrations. But the late novelist would have enjoyed last week's press conference by Le Frap. The group that has alternately threatened the press, indeed all 'whites' here, then assured them of their security, packed the press corps into a small room in the capital's Holiday Inn hotel. Then they ensured the press were surrounded by a few dozen Haitians, most heavily-built, wearing sunglasses and straw hats or baseball caps, who, on cue, shouted and chanted as though in a voodoo trance. 'Burn Aristide. We don't want him back. We are ready to die. Liberty or death,' they shouted, punching their fists menacingly. It was not a pretty sight, or smell, as the tiled floor became slippery with the sweat of newsmen and demonstrators.

Pro-military supporters yesterday held a voodoo ceremony near the US embassy in which about 50 protesters and a robed voodoo priest staged a ritual for television cameras, using traditional grains of corn and hot peppers. Fear of retaliation by the attaches has prevented other Haitians from carrying out their own voodoo rites at night. An unofficial curfew, one of pure fear, keeps most people off the streets after 9 pm.

The crisis has led to a suspension of public services, making the always-unbearable stench of Port-au-Prince worse than ever. Passing the slum areas, where mountains of rubbish are rising and people excrete openly, you can literally taste the smell. You learn to keep your mouth tight shut for as long as possible.

Tension has risen further since Texaco joined Shell and Esso in closing its pumps in line with the international oil embargo. Motorists angrily queued for hours for petrol at the handful of stations kept open by the presence of soldiers. A US embassy spokesman, Stanley Schrager, said Washington would view 'extremely seriously' any attempt by the Haitian army to provide petrol by seizing foreign-owned depots.

Meanwhile, a few miles uphill from the capital, on the road to the wealthy suburb of Petionville, US and other TV news networks have virtually taken over luxury hotels, making a considerable contribution to Haiti's private sector by spending tens of thousands of dollars per network per day.

Going from the slums to the bar at the Montana Hotel, where the small remaining team of UN diplomats is staying, is a culture shock in itself. Here, a hippyish woman film documentary maker filming a newly-arrived journalist asking a colleague for a briefing. There, the lady Venezuelan ambassador taking souvenir snapshots of UN special envoy Dante Caputo. With a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Mr Caputo spots the camera, looks up at journalists at the bar with a wry smile and quickly sets down both beer and cigarette on the counter before the flash goes off.

(Photograph omitted)