A nonviolent people's revolt is sweeping the northern Haitian countryside, and for the first time in years the hunter is being hunted. In revenge for oppression long wrought by local police, large roving bands of angry men and boys are taking it upon themselves to disarm the Haitian police in their own communities.
The mobs--some with as many as 200 people--are storming the police buildings and pillaging officers' homes, grabbing rifles, shotguns, handguns, knives, batons and ammunition and then marching proudly through the dusty streets and turning the weapons over to U.S. military authorities.
The grass-roots movement has spread--sometimes faster than the U.S. military can get there--to towns such as Grande Riviere and Le Borgne in the northern valleys as people have become emboldened in the wake of the killings last weekend of 10 Haitian policemen in a gun battle with U.S. Marines.
On Tuesday, the people "liberated" Limbe, a town of 20,000. "Anybody who has repressed us, we are taking their guns," declared Jacques Fritz, who led a 200-man mob Tuesday morning into the home of a local police section chief. "Anybody who beat us or whipped us, we are taking their guns. So when (exiled) President (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide gets back, the country will be clean."
But the reversal in Limbe and the other northern towns has brought chaos rather than instant freedom, wedging U.S. troops between demands by the crowds that police who surrender to U.S. troops be turned over to the people and police officers' pleas for American protection. The soldiers, brought here to keep the peace, find themselves unable to please everyone.
"My brain is racked," said an exasperated Capt. Ed Barton, leader of a group of six Special Forces troops who have set up a base in the center of Limbe. "My job is to establish some sort of civil order around here. But we are starting at scratch, and everyone is turning to us for help."
Added Capt. Bruce Rahn, "Everybody thinks we are their own personal savior."
Life in Limbe began to turn upside down Sunday. A special detachment of Marines from nearby Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, landed by helicopter here in what was supposed to have been a get-acquainted meeting with local residents.
The Marines met with the police and confiscated most of their firearms, including semiautomatic and automatic weapons. When the troops flew back to Cap Haitien on Sunday night, they allowed the police to keep only a handful of weapons.
"They left us with some pistols, and they said they would return," said Cpl. Ramon Cadet, a Haitian police officer here.
But the Marines are being phased out of Cap Haitien this week to make way for Army troops from the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division, and it was the Army Special Forces who came to Limbe on Monday. They landed on the soccer field, townspeople swarming around the helicopters. The people then marched with the soldiers through the town, up to the open-air marketplace and into the Limbe police headquarters.
By the time Capt. Barton and his men strolled into the police building Monday, only three of the community's 20 policemen were still in town. The rest had scattered or gone into hiding. The three officers quickly turned themselves in to Barton.
"I put up my hands and surrendered," said Haitian police officer Parison Joseph.
Added Joseph's colleague Cadet: "By the time the Army got here, the people seemed no longer to tolerate us being here. They would no longer respect our authority. So we threw up our hands and surrendered to the United States."
The crowds grew throughout the day Monday. The people angrily told Barton how, before the Army arrived, the three police officers had fired their pistols into the air to keep the mob away. The crowd wanted Barton to hand over the officers.
The three policemen begged for protection.
Barton did nothing, deciding to let tempers cool overnight.
On Tuesday morning, the rest of Limbe was emptied of police weapons as the crowds swept through various neighborhoods and converged on policemen's homes.
At the small, squat home of Papa Pierre, one of the police section chiefs who had fled Limbe, the mob poured in and rifled his belongings.
Outside, Pierre's 90-year-old mother, Yaya Pierre, was frightened by the uproar. Blind, gray-haired and nearly toothless, she shook her cane at the crowd. But she was no match for them; they pushed past her.
"My son doesn't live here anymore," she shouted. "Sometimes he comes to see us, but he doesn't live here anymore. He is the only son I have. My child! My child!"
Undeterred, the crowd turned and marched the two miles to the town square. Along the way they picked up another police rifle and a knife--the last of the police weapons they believe were left in Limbe.
There, in a grand gesture of civic pride, they presented Pierre's hat and the weapons they had gathered to the U.S. troops.
"Everything will be a lot more peaceful if nobody has guns," said Pierre Jacquelin Alace as he handed over the booty. "Let the U.S. Army have the guns now."