In THE fishing village of Raboteau near the northern Haitian city of Gonaïves, 12 men gather around, mournful but eager to talk about what happened 18 years ago. They argue over the details; not all memories are the same. Some were beaten, others tortured, and some, who had hidden, watched in horror.
All saw the brutality of the Haitian Armed Forces (FAd’H), which terrorised the nation during the regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, and later General Raoul Cédras in the 1990s.
At around 4am on 22 April, 1994, FAd’H soldiers supported by members of the death squad known as FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) went to the township.
At the time, Raboteau was a hotbed of opposition to the junta of Cédras, whose regime had been responsible for upwards of 3,000 killings since ousting president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
In a final attempt to silence demands for the return of the former president, troops burst into the homes of villagers as they slept. Many ran towards the beach, leaping into fishing boats or trying to swim away.
Anticipating their escape route, the army was moored offshore, machine guns at the ready. Estimates indicate that between 26 and 50 people died but the survivors, and the lawyer who helped them bring a landmark case against the perpetrators, believes the toll was higher.
“More, more than that,” they protest when we present them with the figures. “There was a big boat with about 50 people alone, bringing goods to Gonaïves. They killed everyone on it.”
“I’ve heard that too,” says human rights lawyer Mario Joseph. “The military stayed for many days, burying bodies.”
The FAd’H was disbanded in 1995 by Aristide, who took power a year earlier after American intervention. His decision to scrap the force has been deemed the greatest leap forward made by Haiti since independence.
Now, almost two decades after Raboteau, the shadow of the military looms once more.
In recent months, a rogue army – numbering an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 – have occupied former FAd’H camps.
They are demanding to be included in a new force promised by president Michel Martelly. This has struck fear into the hearts of those who suffered under the FAd’H for years, and alarmed western diplomats.
Mr Martelly says an army is necessary to bolster his overwhelmed police force. Critics say it’s the last thing Haiti needs.
High on the president’s promises, the “soldiers” began training before the military rebuilding plan had been put in motion. They have ignored orders to put down their weapons, and a hardcore group is demanding status as an interim force until the government decides on a formal structure.
The 10,000-strong UN stabilisation mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Haitian National Police (PNH) are the other players in the drama. With the PNH ill-equipped to deal with the crisis, it is thought MINUSTAH troops could disband the camps if a peaceful solution cannot be found.
At Camp Lamentin, a former military base in Port-au-Prince, we are greeted by one-time Sergeant Larose Aubin, who looks every inch ex-army. Most of the uniformed men around him, however, would have been children when the FAd’H disbanded.
No-one knows who is funding them, but they have new vehicles, tents, food, and guns. Sgt Aubin starts our chat with a broadside at the UN.
“MINUSTAH came to bring peace to the country but peace is not there – it’s a war,” he says. “This is the reason the Haitian people want the army back.”
Do they? Even at Raboteau, reaction is mixed, confusing.
“The army has big guns, the police only have little guns,” one man says of the added protection a new force might offer. Remarkably, it seems some in the village are willing to forgive.
At Camp Lamentin, as Sgt Aubin explains how different and more disciplined this new force will be, two of his trainees begin a fistfight right behind us.
“Anyway,” he says, breaking ten seconds of awkward silence. “If [the government] do not accept us, then something will happen and they will not be able to deal with it.”
Some 150 men and women start singing at the prompting of former Sgt Yves Jeudy, who says his group will not partake in a government pay-off plan and sets a 18 May deadline for Mr Martelly to deliver.
“Liberty or death!” they cry.