Refugees escape to hunger and thirst: Patrick Cockburn in Lakil discovers that the inability to cope with a human tide is pushing Clinton towards an invasion of Haiti

VAL, a thin, bearded man who complains of a fever, used to make his living by organising cock- fights for the villagers of Lakil on the coast 20 miles west of Port-au- Prince. When local police put him out of business two weeks ago - by repeatedly demanding small bribes - he paid dollars 40 ( pounds 27) for a seat in a wooden boat to take him away from Haiti.

Along with the 65 people who set sail with him, Val did not really expect to cross the 600 miles of open sea to Florida. They were picked up by the US coastguard vessel Hamilton after two days.

What happened then explained why the numbers of Haitian boat people stopped by US ships ringing Haiti has fallen to less than 100 a day compared to over 1,000 a day last week. The change - though certainly temporary, given the strength of the impulse to leave Haiti - is important because of its inability to cope with the tide of refugees which is pushing President Clinton towards an invasion.

On board the Hamilton there was little food and water during the two days it took the ship to carry the Haitians to the US base at Guantanamo in Cuba. 'They gave us just a cup of water each to clean ourselves,' said Val. 'The food was bad. The crew of the coastguard ship were angry because they were meant to go on leave two weeks before but could not because of the Haitians. They pushed us around with batons but did not beat us.'

At Guantanamo, conditions were worse. Going by Val's story - confirmed by other villagers - there was little food and water. He saw seven people die in the camp, some in a stampede to get to a food distribution point. The refugees were then asked if they wanted to return to Haiti or go to Panama.

Val decided to go to Panama, which had originally agreed to accept 10,000 Haitians but suddenly withdrew the offer last week. He was then seen by a UN official who said he would have to stay three months in Guantanamo and then go to another camp. He was told he would go back to Haiti as soon as exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned. Val then asked to return to Haiti.

The lack of food and water on the US ship is probably explained by the fact that the US was surprised by the thousands who set sail after Mr Clinton's announcement on 15 June that he would facilitate political asylum.

But many villagers in Lakil, a dusty collection of shacks half-hidden by banana plants, still said they would set sail as soon as there was a ship and they had the money to buy a seat. Claude Chancy, an unofficial local leader, pointed to a blue and white bus nearby, with Esperance (Hope) written in large letters on the front. He said the owner was trying to sell it to buy a passage on a boat.

The Haitian police, knowing the exodus of boat people brings American intervention closer, are trying to stop the boats leaving. Claude Chancy says: 'My uncle was arrested because he was carrying a suitcase in the village street and they thought he must be leaving.' The dumping of at least 12 dead bodies at Morne-a-Bateau ten miles from Lakil showed villagers that the government is still firmly in control.

The US has always tried to distinguish between political and economic refugees - giving asylum to small numbers of the former and sending the latter back to Haiti. It is not a distinction the villagers of Lakil understand.

NEW YORK - The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, recommended yesterday that the United States and its allies should provide a 15,000- strong force in Haiti after its military rulers leave office, Reuter reports. The UN could not field such a large force but would move in with several hundred peace- keepers, he said.