Haiti Calls Off Election Amid Killings, Turmoil : 17 Shot Down in Massacre at Polling Place in Capital; Government Dissolves Voting Council
The first free election in Haiti in 30 years collapsed Sunday in gory violence.
At least 30 people died in Port-au-Prince alone, 17 of them in a brutal and bloody schoolhouse massacre. It is feared that the toll will be much higher when the turmoil that accompanied the opening of the polls subsides.
Witnesses saw troops of the U.S.-supported provisional government--which had pledged to safeguard the voting--join plainclothes killers in the schoolhouse massacre and other violent incidents in the capital.
Gunmen--and in at least two cases police and army troops--also fired on foreign journalists and election observers, killing a Dominican Republic television cameraman.
In hopes of stopping the bloodshed, the Independent Electoral Council of nine civic leaders appointed under Haiti’s new constitution to conduct the transition to democracy announced a postponement of the election less than three hours after the polls opened. At least some of the council’s members went into hiding, its president, Ernst Mirville, said in a telephone call from his own hide-out.
In a coldly worded statement Sunday afternoon, the army-led National Government Council responded by ordering the election council disbanded. The statement accused the council’s members, who worked against time and government obstruction to prepare the election, of violating the constitution, “imperiling the unity of the nation” and “inviting the interference of foreign powers in the internal affairs of the country.”
In Washington, the U.S. responded by suspending all non-humanitarian economic aid to the military-dominated government.
The Rev. Leslie Griffiths, a Church of England observer, said that two parishioners died when rock- and gun-wielding bands of men invaded and desecrated four Roman Catholic churches. “They struck old people on their heads with rocks,” Griffiths said. He said that witnesses identified 17 army soldiers in another attack that silenced a Catholic radio station.
Robert E. White, a human rights activist and former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador who is one of more than 200 international election observers here, said that in two instances when his group came under fire while visiting polling stations, “the (Haitian) military cooperated with the Tontons Macoutes”--former secret policemen of the Duvalier dictatorship who have been widely blamed for election-week terrorism here.
The communique dissolving the election council was signed by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, who had been seen by the United States, Canada, France and other Western countries as the best hope of seeing this nation through a transition from the Duvalier dictatorship to a freely elected civilian government. Namphy later appeared on national television making a brief, aggressive speech pledging now seemingly impossible elections before February.
Army Role Crucial
After months of open hostility or indifference to the largely American-financed election process by the Namphy government, American and other diplomats still had said they believed the council would deploy the army to protect voters going to the polls.
Instead, with the apparent blessing of the regime, soldiers joined armed Duvalier loyalists in a rampage that terrorized Port-au-Prince and, according to sketchy reports from other parts of the primitive, poverty-ridden country, other areas as well. In Gonaive, Haiti’s fourth-largest city, sources interviewed by telephone said army troops had invaded the polling places, destroying ballots and firing into the air to frighten away potential voters.
American diplomats, who had repeatedly expressed confidence in Namphy’s willingness to safeguard the elections, refused to comment on their apparent betrayal by the government council. But diplomats from many of the other embassies who had supported the council appeared to be stunned by the day of terror.
“I frankly don’t know if we trusted the wrong people, or if they simply couldn’t handle the job, or if they just lied to us,” said one diplomat about the government’s apparent collaboration with the rampaging terrorists. He said the Namphy government seemed to have no regard for international opinion.
Burst Into School
In the worst of the incidents, eyewitnesses said that 40 to 60 men whom they identified as Tontons Macoutes burst into the capital city’s Ecole Argentine elementary school, where about 100 voters were waiting to cast ballots for president and the National Assembly.
“They just opened up with guns and went after people with machetes,” one shaken witness said. Another witness said that “legs were cut off, people’s guts were hanging out, faces were shot away.”
Reporters and photographers who rushed to the scene moments after the invaders left found horribly mutilated bodies lying in the school courtyard and sprawled in schoolrooms where victims had futilely sought safety.
As the foreign journalists surveyed the carnage, some of the gunmen returned, accompanied this time by an unknown number of soldiers. The soldiers opened fire, killing Carlos Grullon of television station Rahintel in the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic. Jean Bernard Diedrich, a Time Inc. photographer who sought cover with Grullon, said he saw a uniformed soldier shoot the Dominican journalist three times in the back.
Efforts of foreign journalists and observers to visit polling stations and other sites of violence were frustrated throughout the day by armed men, including police and soldiers, who intercepted and shot at them.
Three ABC television crewmen were hunted down and shot by gunmen who had forced them to flee their bullet-ridden van. Two of them, a Mexican cameraman and a Salvadoran soundman, were evacuated by chartered jet to the United States for treatment of leg and arm wounds, and the third--their Haitian driver--was hospitalized here with severe chest wounds.
British free-lance photographer Jeoffrey Smith was shot in the leg, and a Swiss woman identified as Gabra Tulerf, who works in Port-au-Prince for the European Communities, was reported to be in serious condition at State University Hospital here with a bullet wound in the back.
The hospital said that it had admitted more than 40 wounded people, many of them from the school massacre. By early afternoon three had died in surgery, it said.
Throughout Port-au-Prince, the day was characterized by pandemonium as roving bands of Duvalier loyalists raced around the city, firing in the air and, in at least one case, throwing hand grenades--without interference from police or soldiers.
Four of the city’s radio stations were attacked by gunfire. White said the director of the Catholic station, Father Hugo Trieste, told him that 16 uniformed men blew up the station transmitter at 3 a.m., then ignited the adjoining houses of his engineer and administrator with a flame thrower, badly burning a guard.
In another incident, the house of the election council’s treasurer, Methodist minister Alain Rocourt, was attacked with hand grenades and gunfire.
The bodies of seven people slain by apparently random gunfire were found lying in the streets by reporters and observers who went out to investigate the incidents at first light.
One free-lance photographer, Steve Wilson of Wadsworth, Ohio, said he slowed his car to steer around one of the bodies when four armed men intercepted him. Wilson said they forced him out of his car, made him kneel in the street, then stood behind him as if they intended to execute him. But, after stealing his cameras and money, they ordered him back into his car, then shot out his rear window as he drove away.
Tim O’Leary, a former journalist who works as a press officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said he was fired on by one of a group of uniformed policemen milling around a polling station.
Two groups of journalists who fled the second attack on the Port-au-Prince school were held under siege in nearby houses by gunmen who pursued them. The journalists were later rescued by Jeffrey Lite, the U.S. Embassy’s public affairs officer, who made repeated runs around the city in an armored embassy van to help journalists and others under fire.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.