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Still Traumatized by 1987 Massacre, Town’s Inhabitants Easy To Repress

March 16, 1992

JEAN RABEL, Haiti (AP) _ In the dusty streets of this badlands town, a resident occasionally emerges from his shack to shout ″Duvalier 3/8″ at a white visitor.

But supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, still mindful of a 1987 massacre, stay inside and keep their mouths shut.

″They won’t open up to anyone they don’t know,″ says Roger Gouasdon, a Roman Catholic priest.

Those who fondly recall the 30-year dictatorship of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean Claude, the widely feared ″Papa Doc″ and ″Baby Doc,″ enjoy a firm grip on Jean Rabel, a town of 70,000 in Haiti’s parched northwest.

Baby Doc fell in an uprising in 1986, but the political repression that existed under the Duvaliers has enjoyed a nationwide resurgence since Aristide’s ouster in a Sept. 30 coup.

It is fiercest in rural towns and villages where, far from the central government’s control, a feudal style of rule has persisted for generations.

Perhaps nowhere is that rule more pronounced than in Jean Rabel, where the issue of control over land and politics was decided with bloody certainty long before Aristide’s seven-month presidency.

After the Duvalier regime collapsed, a peasant rights group created by Roman Catholic missionaries had begun openly challenging the near-absolute authority of Jean Rabel’s land barons and the local military chiefs who enforced their rule.

According to a government report, on July 23, 1987, members of the group armed with machetes attacked sharecroppers dependent on the landowners. The sharecroppers put out a call for reinforcements, who arrived in the thousands and slaughtered the activists.

At least 225 peasants died - all hacked or beaten to death, some as they crawled toward the town’s hospital for treatment, the government report said.

In that same hospital, a recent visitor found 30-year-old Lerancien Morencie, a laborer, lying face down in a bed. He’d been admitted eight days earlier with infected wounds on his buttocks and hips.

Morencie said he was one of four men beaten by soldiers on the orders of the former local army commander. Hospital workers confirmed his account and said the other three had died.

Some workers said the beatings were politically related, others said they resulted from a dispute over the theft of some property. All agreed that, in any event, they showed the swiftness, severity and often arbitrary nature of justice in Jean Rabel.

The army commander was reassigned after the beatings, the hospital workers said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They were hoping his replacement would prove kinder and gentler.

And indeed there were signs things might be getting better.

Father Gouasdon, a Frenchman who has spent 44 of his 71 years in Haiti, was back in town. He and the two other Catholic priests stationed in Jean Rabel had been run out of town at gunpoint by soldiers in late December.

″They told us, ’Pack your bags. You’ve got two minutes to leave,‴ he said.

The church has been a prime target for military-led repression since the Sept. 30 coup. Aristide himself was a Roman Catholic priest who championed the rights of Haiti’s poor masses.

The Jean Rabel priests spent two months in Port-de-Paix, a coastal city two hours away, before Gouasdon received word it would be all right for him to return. His two compatriots remain banished.

A day after Gouasdon’s reappearance, he presided over a song-filled Mass in the town’s old cathedral. He speaks now of reconciliation.

″There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what democracy means,″ he said in the interview, only hours after his return. ″Democracy means to work together, even if you have different opinions.″

″The church is for everybody,″ he said.

But he was critical of a proposal, backed by the Organization of American States, for a compromise government in Haiti. That government would be headed by a political rival of Aristide, who would be committed at least in writing to working for the ousted president’s eventual return.

″Most people think it is a farce designed to prolong the current situation,″ he said.

Yet the skeptics in Jean Rabel, he said, keep their thoughts to themselves.

″They have the experience of the past,″ the priest said. ″And they worry about tomorrow.″

″If they dared to show what they think, there would be another massacre.″

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