Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Troubled Haiti
blue skies, burning tires

ROYAL ORR

"They say," murmurs the pretty young woman at church, "that tomorrow there'll be trouble"

Heads nod around us. We're chatting with members of the congregation after morning worship at l'Eglise Methodiste de Port-au-Prince.

"Watch for the fires first thing," says another woman. "Before six."

The next morning from our balcony, you can see black smoke rising all over the town.

Welcome to politics, Haitian style.

The poverty-ravaged nation of Haiti is in the middle of a messy electoral process that has supporters of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide shutting down the capital city on a regular basis.

They do this by piling used tires across city intersections and setting them ablaze. Any car that gets too close or looks like it might try to force the barricade is showered with rocks and chunks of pavement.

In Port-au-Prince, the police retreat to their barracks on mornings like this.

Our driver and our guide show up at 6:30. Today we're being shown around by the head of a human rights organization based in the city. He thinks we might be able to skirt the barricades and slip out of town to meetings we have scheduled 100 kilometres north of the capital. We pile into the car.

Both Haitians are tense, nervous about what we might run into. We wind through back streets, keeping an eye on the sky around us for tell-tale black smudges.

Up ahead we catch sight of a blocage. It's a big one, made of burning truck tires still on their rims, piled three high with a couple of junked car bodies dragged in for good measure.

Our cameraman swings his camera up.

"No!" says our guide. "Not here."

He points to a dozen young men on the sidewalk, already sizing us up as we turn around.

"We'll get shots somewhere else."

After nearly an hour, our guide gives up. We're not getting out of the city today. We head back. Already, more barricades are going up on the route we had traveled earlier. Our driver speeds up, afraid we'll get trapped between blocked intersections.

Around one corner we come on a group of men just lighting one end of a jumble of tires, rocks and twisted roofing tin. Our guide rolls down his window, asking politely if we can pass before the whole thing goes up in flames.

Obligingly -- and surprisingly -- a wild-eyed man wearing a dark pin-striped suit with neither shirt nor tie, holding a Naya water bottle full of gasoline high in the air, pulls a small stack of tires aside. We scoot through.

We spend the rest of the morning on the balcony of our residence. The smell of burning rubber is heavy in the humid air. The Palais National is wreathed in protesters' smoke all day.

The next morning there's no smoky evidence of protest over the city. We head north on Route Nationale Une to interview a group of poor rice farmers in a region known as the Artibonite Valley.

We have a different guide today. He warns us that he'll be driving fast along the stretches of highway between the towns. He checks our doors to make sure they're locked. He takes a small satchel out of the glove compartment. It looks like a shaving kit.

Up ahead there are beautiful sandstone cliffs above the blue Caribbean sea. I ask if we can stop to shoot some video footage.

"No!"

Slow down maybe?

"No," he repeats. "Car-jackings."

I realize the shaving kit on the console between the front seats contains a hand gun. It will be our constant companion all week.

As I write this, it's exactly 48 hours since my plane touched down in Miami, 48 hours since I finally allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief that I was really, truly out of Haiti after eight days in that unsettling nation.

It was an amazing, frightening experience.

I need a couple of weeks to think about what it all meant. Can I get back to you on this one?

TO PART TWO


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