May 21, 2006

Preval faces big challenge in Haiti’s largest slum

By Tom Brown

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - The volatile situation in
Haiti's largest and most violent slum could prove a major
obstacle for President Rene Preval as he seeks to stabilize his
country and put it on a democratic path.

Preval appealed for peace in the troubled Caribbean nation
last Sunday as he was inaugurated as Haiti's first
democratically elected leader since Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled
an armed revolt more than two years ago.

But leaders of gangs in Cite Soleil, a shantytown home to
at least 300,000 people and a potent symbol of misery in the
poorest country in the Americas, say there can be no peace
without justice and a speedy response to their demands.

No ultimatums have been set, according to several gang
leaders who voiced cautious support for Preval when interviewed
by Reuters last week.

But chief among their demands is one for the return of
Aristide, who went into exile in February 2004 in the face of a
bloody rebellion and pressure from Washington and Paris to step

Preval, a one-time Aristide ally and previously president
of Haiti from 1996 to 2001, has said there is nothing to
prevent Aristide's return. He stopped short of saying he would
welcome back a figure still seen as a champion of the poor but
reviled by Haiti's tiny, wealthy elite.

"Aristide must come back," said Augudson Nicolas, a slight
man known as General Toutou who controls one of the gangs in
the teeming warren of shacks, narrow alleys and open sewers.

The United States has warned Preval not to allow Aristide
back -- accusing him of despotism and reliance on armed thugs
to silence opponents. But that could reignite violence in Cite
Soleil, which has seen an orgy of bloodshed over the past two

A U.N. peacekeeping mission, now numbering about 9,000
troops and civilian police, has been in Haiti since June 2004
to support a U.S.-backed interim government.


Preval has asked the mission, widely despised in the slums,
to stay on for now but that too could backfire on him.

Cite Soleil's gang leaders are demanding the withdrawal of
the U.N. troops, saying they have killed women, children and
other defenseless people since rolling into the shantytown in
menacing armored personnel carriers.

Resentment runs high among many residents, whose
cinder-block homes are pockmarked by bullets fired during
pitched battles between U.N. troops and Cite Soleil's gangs.

Georges Masillon, 54, standing outside a sand-bagged former
supermarket where blue-helmeted U.N. troops are bivouacked,
bemoaned the fate of his 29-year-old son on crutches nearby.

The young man was shot by Jordanian peacekeepers while
trying to run for safety on February 1 when gunfire erupted for
no apparent reason, Masillon said. One bullet severed his
Achilles tendon while the exit wound from another damaged his

"MINUSTAH has done nothing to help us, they have only hurt
us," said Masillon, using the French-language acronym of the
U.N. mission

"Cite Soleil gave Preval power," said Sonson Pierre, a
self-proclaimed soldier in what he described as the army of
Commander Evans, one of Cite Soleil's main gang leader.

"If Preval doesn't respond to us it's going get hot," he
said, referring to the demands for a U.N. withdrawal.

Several of Haiti's gangs had offered to lay down their
weapons once Preval took office but none has disarmed so far.

Evans' followers, many barefoot and brandishing automatic
assault rifles, danced through mud-choked alleys and fired off
gunshots into the air last Thursday in celebration after
briefly taking a Brazilian army colonel hostage. Evans, who
figures prominently on Haiti's most wanted list, said there had
been a botched U.N. attempt at his arrest.

"All we want for this country is peace," he said. "I don't
think the whites (U.N. peacekeepers) want peace. They should