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Terrified Haitians Resort to Killing Petty Thieves

May 2, 1995

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ He stole a bar of soap, a loaf of bread and a small bottle of shampoo. For that, a crowd frustrated by increasing crime in Haiti kicked, beat and stoned him to death.

``Summary execution is becoming a daily practice in the capital,″ wrote the newspaper Le Nouvelliste.

After years of brutal dictatorships, the U.S.-led multinational force that brought President Jean-Bertrand Aristide home from exile in October helped Haitians sleep in peace for a few months.

Now, once again, they fear for their lives.

In February, about 20 homicides were reported in Haiti. The U.N. civilian mission reported 97 in March and 20 in the first half of April.

Other crime is up as well. Last week, two gunmen attacked a medical clinic in broad daylight. Unable to find its director, they robbed patients in the waiting room before escaping on a motorbike.

Burglars frequently target stores in downtown Port-au-Prince, some of which are looted several times a month. The fledgling police force in training at nearby police precinct stations is unable to react quickly or effectively.

So street merchants and neighborhood vigilante committees are trying to fill the gap by defending themselves _ and taking their own revenge.

In March, 45 of the 97 reported killings were committed by mobs demanding street justice. There were five such executions in the first half of April, then more after Easter. On four days last week, at least 10 alleged thieves were killed.

Traditionally, thieves are open game in Haiti, and one of the worst insults in Creole is ``vole″ _ thief.

Still, street merchants in the Croix-des-Bossales neighborhood, where many thieves have been killed, are closing early to avoid reprisals.

Metal sculptor Jean-Gerard Merveille was sickened as he watched the mob kill the man who stole bread and soap, but said it was illustrative of the country’s problems.

``Their ferocity expresses their hatred of their own miserable lives,″ he said.

Most Haitians are hungry or malnourished, and inflation is climbing. Most Haitians die before reaching 54 and more than one child in 100 dies before their fifth birthday.

Thousands are unemployed. An estimated 150,000 jobs were lost during three years of military rule, and the only new jobs that have been created are some short-term work funded by the United States.

Some $1.2 billion in international aid promised in January has been slow in coming, and the $90 million already in hand has gone to the budget deficit and energy needs. Little is left for development, and the climate for private investment is bad.

``Insecurity, unemployment, and the high cost of living are the devouring trinity of Haitian reality,″ author Francois Roc commented in Le Nouvelliste.

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