By PAUL KNOX
Monday, February 16, 2004
GONAÏVES, HAITI -- Welcome to Gonaïves, says the soda-pop ad on a billboard past the rebel-controlled barricade at the entrance to town. Life Tastes Good.
It may never have tasted better for Butteur Metayer, leader of the ragged insurgents who control this ramshackle city, where a pig roots through garbage at a market crossroads and Mr. Metayer's henchmen rule the rubble-strewn streets.
In his black felt hat, dark glasses and Hyatt Orlando golf shirt, the 33-year-old Mr. Metayer hardly seems like a man who poses the gravest threat to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide since his election in 2000. But holding court at his open-air headquarters, he and his chief lieutenant set out a plan they say will see Mr. Aristide overthrown by the end of March.
"I don't think this movement can stay in Gonaïves," Mr. Metayer said. "All of the Haitian people don't need Aristide right now."
His aide and philosopher-in-residence, Winter Étienne, says their Artibonite Resistance Front -- formerly known as the Cannibal Army -- will first gain a hammerlock on the fertile Artibonite River valley, where they already control several towns. The next move will be to conquer Haiti's northern coast. Then the rebels will create the Republic of Quisqueya -- a Taino Indian word for the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
After that? "We're going after Port-au-Prince," where a non-violent opposition movement is also challenging Mr. Aristide and staged the latest of a series of noisy street protests yesterday.
The forecast seems extravagant. Mr. Metayer claims only to have "more than 200" men under his command, a varied collection of firearms and a fleet of civilian vehicles and two speedboats.
His force began life as a street gang and has been swelled by Haitian criminals deported from the United States. But he got a boost on the weekend when Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a feared ex-soldier and leader of paramilitary killers, announced his return to Haiti from the Dominican Republic and joined the revolt with 20 commandos. A former chief of the National Police, Guy Philippe, also returned from exile to link up with the rebels.
Mr. Metayer's rebels seized Gonaïves, a port city of 250,000, on Feb. 5. They overran the police station and repulsed a police assault two days later, killing at least 14.
The story of their revolt offers a window into Haiti under Mr. Aristide, who is widely accused of encouraging rampant corruption and ruling through alliances with well-organized gangs.
At one time, the President's ward boss in Gonaïves was Mr. Metayer's brother Amiot. But in September, after he threatened to reveal details of the murders of opposition figures, Amiot himself was murdered.
According to Mr. Étienne, Amiot's followers then conducted a voodoo séance. The slain leader's soul appeared and identified a dozen known Aristide supporters as his killers. After that, the Gonaïves gang switched sides, keeping their weapons.
There were frequent attacks and reprisals involving the Cannibals and pro-government factions. "The police used to fire on us," said 37-year-old Malmod Jean-Baptiste, one of several women who spoke about life in the troubled city. "People were fed up with that stuff. We don't want the police back here."
The Cannibals made a public appeal for forgiveness for prior crimes in an attempt to build sympathy among the population, said Raoul Elysée, head of the Haitian Red Cross in Gonaïves.
Mr. Étienne said the rebels will turn in their weapons and form a political party if they manage to oust Mr. Aristide. He said they would espouse "a right-wing economic program and a left-wing social program."
Relief agencies are warning of a looming hunger crisis in remote mountain villages, but there appeared to be little danger in Gonaïves. In the port, a freighter unloaded more than a thousand 50-kilogram sacks of flour Saturday, as well as crates of cooking oil. Nevertheless, Mr. Elysée said he hoped to begin distributing food today.
At La Providence hospital, the wards were empty. A doctor said only emergency operations were being performed. Schools have been closed since September. "Who would send their kinds to school during this trouble?" asked 72-year-old Jean-Baptiste Dorismond, a justice of the peace.
Gun-toting rebels zipped through the city on motorcycles. Rocks and rusted-out car wrecks littered the streets -- part of the rebels' defences against a possible assault by police and pro-Aristide gangs that are reportedly supplied by the government.
Mr. Metayer said he receives no weapons or outside support. Foreign troops would be welcome in Haiti for one purpose, he added.
"If they are coming to Haiti to get Aristide out of power, fine. If not, my gun is my freedom."