A Village Accustomed to Fighting for Freedom Awaits the Americans
BASSIN CAIMAN, Haiti (AP) _ On the slopes of a lush green mountain range stands a bastion against Haiti’s repressive military rule, its homes unreachable by any road, its spirit of resistance unvanquished by the soldiers who have tried to snuff it out.
Twice raided by army troops - virtually burned to the ground in the last attack five months ago - the northern village of Bassin Caiman eagerly awaits the blowing of conch-shell horns that will signal the arrival of U.S. troops.
Men in the village lifted conch shells to their lips Thursday and blew repeated blasts that echoed far into the mountain vastness where pro-democracy activists have been hiding. The call summoned villagers to tell a reporter for the first time how they survived that bloody day in April.
The blowing of the shell was an eerie echo of the past. Haiti’s bloody slave revolt, which threw off French colonial rule at the close of the 18th century, was announced with the blare of a conch shell near Bassin Caiman.
This time, hundreds of people walked down the mountainside, past the smashed-in brick walls of buildings destroyed by Haitian forces and patches of bare earth where wooden homes once stood before the troops set them afire in April.
After attacking Bassin Caiman with hundreds of troops, the Haitian military sealed it off and barred journalists from entering the village, a stronghold of the ousted elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The army claimed troops were battling communist rebels there.
But when Haitian forces abandoned the nearest town this week in anticipation of the arrival of U.S. troops, the village was opened to anyone who wanted to make the 45-minute trek along a river valley. The villagers had much to tell about the April massacre, and were eager to do so.
Haitian forces entered Bassin Caiman before dawn on April 9, firing their weapons. Witnesses said the soldiers swept through the valley and up the slopes, burning homes as the villagers fled up the mountainside ahead of them.
Eight villagers were killed in the attack and at least 250 homes - some say as many as 700 - were destroyed. Some of the destroyed houses lay deep in the mountain, making an accurate count difficult.
″I ran,″ said Alfonso Beltran, a villager. ″When I turned around and looked back, I saw all this smoke and fire in the valley below.″
After the villagers fled, there were more deaths.
″We went into the jungle,″ recounted Alcide Diedone, 66, a wiry barefoot man who had many missing teeth and wore a fraying cap. ″There was no place to stay. One child died from snake bite.″
Haitian forces reportedly shot two men to death as they tried to sneak into a nearby town for food.
″It was very difficult,″ said villager Bobo Francois. ″All we could find to eat in the jungle were mangoes.″
Villagers said the Haitian forces also destroyed their crops.
There have been rumors that pro-democracy leader Marc Lamour and his men were building a guerrilla force and experimenting with arms, but Bassin Caiman’s political leaders deny they were organizing an armed insurrection.
″We were attacked because this was a Lavalas stronghold,″ said Joseline Jean, a 35-year-old man leaning on a walking stick beside the ruins of a house.
″We are still a Lavalas stronghold,″ he added, raising his hand in a fist. Other men standing nearby grunted their approval.
Lavalas is the political movement that backs Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, who is set to return to power by Oct. 15.
Lamour, a charismatic figure who served in the national government and is likely to be an Aristide adviser, was unavailable for an interview, his followers said.
One said Lamour was afraid that if he spoke out, Haitian troops would come to the village again.
On Thursday, about 100 men and women met in Bassin Caiman’s church, a bare structure of lashed bamboo walls and a corrugated tin roof to organize a huge welcome for U.S. soldiers.
″We need the Americans to come here,″ said Rival Pierre, one of the organizers.
Residents fear that if the Americans leave Haiti witout restoring Aristide to power as President Clinton has pledged, they will be doomed.
″We need Aristide back soon, and for him to remake the police force,″ Beltran said. ″If that doesn’t happen, we will be tossed into a hole and forgotten. The police will be vengeful and kill us all.″