Pro-Aristide peasants defy thugs: As rural Haitians await the President's return, fears of violence are growing, writes Patrick Cockburn in La Bastille

Click to follow
IN THE central highlands of Haiti the political atmosphere is so tense that the arrival on market day of a pair of Western journalists in the town of La Bastille provoked a demonstration by 2,000 peasants, chanting the name of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Police and soldiers standing nearby did not intervene. But the peasants said that they did not believe that the supporters of the military regime would give up without a fight.

Nobody in La Bastille had seen any American soldiers, although they occasionally saw helicopters flying overhead. Real power remains in the hands of Joseph St John Celestin, a police commander in a military helmet, who held court on a knoll overlooking the market, where thousands of farmers were selling produce.

La Bastille is not far from Port- au-Prince on the map. But it is almost completely isolated by rugged mountains, penetrated at only one point by the remains of a road that is pitted with deep craters.

We had heard from a Creole radio reporter that there were towns in the area where the chefs de section, the officials who hold the power of life and death over rural Haitians, beat up anybody who mentions President Aristide.

On arriving at the market on the edge of the town, we saw five tough-looking men. One, fingering a machete, sat under an awning, collecting a small sum from every farmer. These were attaches, the feared paramilitary aides of the chefs de section. Asked what he thought of the imminent return of President Aristide, one said, suddenly in English: 'I cannot speak. I know nothing about it.'

As we walked away we were mobbed by angry farmers who said the attaches charged them far more than was legal for selling their goods. In a tent, Commander Celestin was standing with a group of armed men, whom he described as 'tax collectors and friends'. He was a burly, confident man - unlike his aides, who looked deeply put out when asked about Fr Aristide. He said that his job was 'to protect the people,' adding: 'In this area we don't have any problems.'

At this point, the farmers standing outside the tents began to shout 'Aristide] Aristide] Aristide]' One man produced a crumpled poster of the President. Up to a week ago its possession could have got him killed by the attaches. All over the market farmers cut green fronds from the trees and waved them in triumph.

One man who said his name was Ti-Taone, wanted us to see his village, which he said was terrorised by 50 attaches. He said: 'They beat you up. You can't say a word about Aristide. They have all kinds of weapons, mostly handguns. I had to flee four or five months ago because they knew I supported Labalas (Aristide's political movement) They won't give up without a fight.'

Although we said we were journalists, the peasants treated us as emissaries of the US intervention force. An attache said there were 12 US soldiers in a barracks an hour away, but nobody had seen them. Ti-Taone kept insisting we go to his village and sort out the attaches who had forced him to flee. One of two brothers, who were dancing in the road waving palm fronds, said: 'Our father had to flee three years ago, and now he can come home.'

One man said: 'Ever since the helicopters started flying backwards and forwards, we can sleep peacefully.' But he looked nervous, as if he knew very little had changed in the countryside, where five out of every six Haitians live. Chefs de section still rule, at the head of a band of armed mafiosi, who make their money from illegal fines and bribes.

On the mountain pass above La Bastille two soldiers manning a police post at Terre Rouge stopped our jeep and demanded 20 Haitian dollars ( pounds 4.40), because we did not have an updated tax disc. The police office in Port-au-Prince had run out of discs and had given us a piece of paper. No doubt the soldiers knew this, but they insisted on imposing a fine.

Another sign of the grip of the attaches is the fate of radios dropped from US aircraft.

The aim was to enable Haitian peasants to know what was happening during the occupation. Coloured pink, blue and black, these have almost invariably fallen into the hands of supporters of the military. Sure enough, lounging against the concrete steps of the Terre Rouge police post was an attache listening to a pink radio made by Radio Shack, that he proudly showed us.

The US Army has a tight grip in Port-au-Prince. But in the countryside there is potential for violence. The peasantry who elected Fr Aristide looked to him to get rid of men like Commander Celestin. The attaches are nervous. At the market in La Bastille, farmers were forbidden to bring their machetes. The demonstration in the presence of armed soldiers shows expectations are high. A political explosion is likely if the peasants' hopes are thwarted.

(Photograph omitted)