Rafters resume perilous odyssey

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THEY left at twilight like heroes, to the cheers of thousands. But they were soon alone in pitch blackness at the mercy of the ocean. 'Bravo, God go with you,' shouted the crowd lined up on the rocks and for several hundred yards on the promenade wall along Havana's malecon (seafront).

The crowd cheered as youths dived into the waves to help push off the tiny raft built on four oil drums and two tractor inner tubes. Its five young occupants rowed furiously against stiff wind and current. Onlookers tossed them packs of cigarettes and lucky charms as they pulled clear of the shore.

Behind the crowd, hundreds of them clutching bicycles, police cashed in by unscrewing the number-plates of journalists' parked cars and returning them later along with dollars 50 ( pounds 32) fines. A few policemen peered through the legs of those on the wall to see the little craft pull out and turn north towards Florida.

'They've got nothing but a compass, muscles and a lot of heart,' said the brother of one of the rafters. 'This is their fourth attempt. Three times the waves have forced them back.'

The five young men were the first to brave the tail-end of a weekend storm that had halted the mass exodus of Cuban balseros (rafters) since Thursday. They left from the heart of Havana, the end of the malecon known as La Punta, in the shadow of the landmark Morro stone tower.

Yesterday, the exodus began anew, from points all along Cuba's northern coast, as the weather turned fair and rafters took to the sea. They were afraid this week's Cuban-US migration talks could slam the door on the sea route to what they see as food and freedom.

Most appeared to heed Fidel Castro's warning that children under 16, the elderly and pregnant women were now officially banned from rafts. But six women, two of them at least in their fifties, were among 15 people who left aboard a 15ft raft from the town of Cojimar east of here yesterday. One younger woman wore large, coloured ear-rings, a smart hairband and fashionable shoes, apparently unaware of what lay ahead in 90 miles that will seem like a lifetime and could end hers.

On the malecon, I was not the only one struggling to maintain a brave face. This was no longer a photograph but flesh and blood, five desperate young men embarking on a nightmare voyage. I have flown the Florida Straits with Cuban-American rescue pilots, have seen six-foot waves and countless empty wrecked rafts.

Unless it is intercepted by the US coastguard, the chances of the small raft that left from Havana were small indeed. When the coastguard rescues rafters, it either burns their craft or, in the case of single inner tubes, daubs them with red paint as a sign their occupants have been rescued. More and more unpainted, empty tubes have been drifting into Florida.

The rafters' families will remain tuned around-the-clock to Miami- based Radio Marti for the next few days. It broadcasts lists of those who reach Florida or are taken by the coastguard to the US base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba.

As dozens of rafts took to the sea yesterday, hundreds more were being prepared, some on rocky beaches, others in the yards of humble homes in the narrow streets of Old Havana itself. One family in the old town, whose raft had grown beyond their original plans, had to knock down part of their house wall to get it out.

A grandmother watched on the shore at Cojimar as most of her family prepared to set off in the flimsiest of craft. Like many of the rafters, they were black, a fact that is threatening racial tension in Miami, where the original inhabitants of 'Little Havana' - wealthier Cubans who fled Castro's 1959 revolution - are mostly white.