Haitian and United Nations (UN) officials are searching for a peaceful way to disarm a brazen band of former soldiers and militias demanding the immediate return of the Haitian armed forces, 17 years after the country’s notoriously brutal army was disbanded.
A rogue group of ex-soldiers, some of whom are vestiges of dictatorships that used the military to terrorise the population, is attempting to force President Michel Martelly to fulfil campaign promises to reinstate the army.
The militants are estimated to number between 2,500 and 3,000 and have set May 18 as a deadline.
“We’re not joking around,” said Larose Aubin, a former army sergeant, at a recent press conference. “We’re going to come with force and with the population, and we will get what we’re looking for. Even if we lose our lives, we will fight. They can’t kill us all.”
Another former sergeant, Yves Jeudy, said: “After 18 May, if the government hasn’t done anything, they will see what happens. We’re not going back and they need to give us an answer quick. We’re running out of patience.”
The former soldiers seized abandoned army bases throughout the country in February. Since then, armed men and women in military fatigues have paraded in several towns, performing traffic stops in full view of Haitian police and UN troops.
President Martelly intends to create a new army and has appointed a presidential commission to do so, but the plan is expected to exclude all but a few from this rogue element and is still a few years from completion.
An effort to disperse the ex-soldiers by offering leaders their long-owed military pensions and back pay has failed. Most of the young recruits are ineligible for this scheme.
The situation escalated last month when about 50 men in uniform, some armed with hand grenades, disrupted a legislative session discussing the ratification of the prime minister-designate Laurent Lamothe.
UN stabilisation force for Haiti (Minustah) spokeswoman Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg acknowledged that although exhaustive measures were being taken, the situation was deteriorating.
“Things are now moving fast and we are discussing it with the government,” she said. “We are in a very sensitive situation and we have to make sure that we keep it as stable as possible.
“As with every peacekeeping mission under chapter seven [of the UN charter], force is the last resort. But we are monitoring the situation very closely and we will not let anyone destabilise the country.”
If force is ultimately needed, chapter seven approves military action when peace is threatened. But just how the Haitian people would react to armed intervention from the 7,500-strong UN force is of grave concern.
Since arriving in Haiti in 2004, Minustah’s reputation has been tarnished by incursions into Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods such as Cité Soleil and Bel-Air, which resulted in civilian casualties. Matters have been compounded by the conviction of two Pakistani peacekeepers for rape and numerous other occasions rape in which no-one was prosecuted.MINUSTAH troops from Nepal have also been accused of causing a cholera outbreak which killed tens of thousands of Haitians.
The upshot, according to Georges Michel of the presidential commission, is that the rebel soldiers are more popular than the UN peacekeepers.
“The people are with them,” he said. “This would be a major catastrophe for President Martelly if he calls upon Minustah to crack down on them. They will be seen as heroes and Martelly as the villain. So a peaceful and political solution must be found.”