After she returned to her home to find that the Haitian army had fatally shot her 18- and 20-year-old sons, Irani Bacien said she knew that she had to escape the horror that Haiti has become.
Spying a 25-foot boat sailing from the island, Bacien, 42, chased along the shore shouting, “Help me! Help me! Take me with you!”
She left behind five children, ages 5 through 16, and daily fears for their safety.
But for now, at least, the safety of Bacien and almost 5,000 Haitians now in U.S. custody has become the responsibility of the American military here on the southeast corner of Cuba.
Under the banner of “Operation Safe Harbor,” U.S. troops by Wednesday had put up a small tent city on a parched outcropping of Guantanamo Bay called Camp Bulkeley.
After living for more than a week aboard the Coast Guard cutter Dallas, 239 Haitians on Wednesday filed toward yellow school buses that would take them to the new camp, a change of clothes and a medical screening. Another 243 Haitians still held aboard the Coast Guard cutter Steadfast looked on, clapping joyfully and singing “Glory to the Lord, Hallelujah! The time has arrived.”
But for camp residents like Bacien, it is unclear what the time has arrived for. On this parched, dusty patch 150 miles from their homes, as many as 10,000 Haitian refugees may now spend weeks--maybe months--in uncertainty. While the U.S. military feeds, clothes and houses them, politicians, bureaucrats and U.S. courts will debate whether they will be forcibly returned to Haiti or win asylum in the United States.
Ask them in their new camp where they go from here, and the cacophony of excited voices falls silent. Long, thin arms, baked by the sun and salt, thrust forward mutely to press tattered scraps of paper into a stranger’s hands. Scrawled on them are names and phone numbers of relatives in New York or Miami who could ease their introduction into America.
The soldiers looking after the Haitians have been ordered not to take the scraps of hope and not to promise any direct help reaching relatives in the United States. That, they have been told, is the job of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
For the U.S. military, the growing exodus of Haitians, and the political deadlock it has caused, has brought its own uncertainty.
The flood of Haitians has turned this corner of Guantanamo Bay into a homestead that could be administered indefinitely, with military funds and by as many as 3,000 service personnel.
The military’s humanitarian mission also has cast it in the uncomfortable role that some detractors call “crowd control.” While military police and civil affairs experts are well-trained in such missions, officials say they do not relish the picture of GIs herding refugees into concertina-wire cages.
At Camp Bulkeley--ringed by Marine guards and concertina wire and bordered by a sparkling blue ocean--Haitians have been segregated by sex. Children have been permitted to stay with either their mothers or fathers. And with at least 20 cots per tent, the quarters are close; brightly colored laundry flutters from nearly every rope in the camp.
Brig. Gen. George H. Walls Jr., the Marine commanding Operation Safe Harbor, on Wednesday received word of the first major expansion of his mission: authorization to go beyond preparations for 2,500 Haitians and instead to begin planning for the maximum number of Haitians this island base can safely handle.
Officials said it may be able to accommodate as many as 10,000 Haitians. When Haitians back home hear of the camp, military officials fear that at least that many more will follow into the treacherous waters and the bleak uncertainty of migrant status at Camp Bulkeley.
Walls also indicated that he, at least, is preparing for the long haul. His planners will soon start rounding up Haitian teachers among the migrants so the children can resume their education. He is looking to establish occupational and recreation facilities to keep the camps’ growing population from growing too restive.
Meanwhile, the new tenants seem prepared for a long standoff over their status--and, thus, for a long stay at Guantanamo.
Asked whether they would return to Haiti, even if deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide were restored to power, a group of Haitian women broke into an angry chorus of negatives. “Even if Aristide is there, the army will always be in charge,” said Marie Edwin Saincville. “We don’t feel safe there. If we were there, we would die.”
For the military, the discomfort with this operation is compounded by the fact that the refugees occupying Camp Bulkeley were supposed to be a different group altogether. Only two months ago, U.S. military planners watched as Cuba began sliding into economic chaos. They then began planning to use Guantanamo Bay for an expected wave of Cuban asylum-seekers.
As Cubans swam, sailed or braved mine fields to leave Cuba, the bastion of Communism, Guantanamo Bay Naval Station was to serve as a temporary way station while their assured refugee status was processed. Instead, the military got the Haitians, and what one top defense official called the “headache” of an unsought, open-ended mission.
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base occupies 28,000 acres in the southeastern corner of Cuba and is home to about 2,400 U.S. military personnel and 930 civilians. Cuba leased Guantanamo Bay to the United States in 1903 for $2,000 a year. In 1962, Cuban leader Fidel Castro accused the United States of territorial interference and demanded immediate relinquishment of the base. President Kennedy refused and sent Marines to protect the base. Since then, the Cuban government has refused lease payments and continues to demand an end to the U.S. presence.