BUTSIDE the barbed-wire fence surrounding the military airport here, hundreds of spectators waited in the hot sun Tuesday for the start of the United States military's ``cash for weapons'' program. Inside the fence, US soldiers and journalists also waited. All that was missing were the weapons.
As part of a nationwide disarmament campaign, the US is offering Haitians $50 to $300 to turn in their weapons. On the first day of the project, the US doled out less than $2,000. Only 26 weapons were turned in.
``This wasn't as successful as we'd like,'' admitted Capt. Andrew Mazur, ``but every weapon we get off the street is one less problem for both the Haitians and ourselves.''
One reason for the low turnout could be that Haitians don't know about it. The cash-for-weapons program has not been advertised on local radio or television, but US soldiers patrolling the capital's streets are using a bullhorn to publicize it, as are low-flying helicopters. A leaflet describes the reward for each weapon type - $50 for a sidearm and $300 for military-style weapons - and explains in Creole that no questions will be asked.
Another reason may be that Haitians can receive up to 10 times that amount on the black market. And the possibility lingers that those who oppose exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide are waiting to remove weapons from secure hiding places and mount a sniper campaign against US troops and Aristide supporters.
No one knows for sure how many unauthorized weapons exist, but a newly energized population seems revved up to find out. Many Haitians, excited by the possibility of being freed from the repressive military and their armed henchmen who have ruled Haiti since the 1991 ouster of exiled President Aristide, are combing the streets to pull in guns, Uzis, and grenades.
``I'm not out for revenge,'' says a young man in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, where a Sept. 24 shootout took place in which 10 armed Haitians died and one US soldier was wounded. Sifting through scattered remains of what had been police files in the Cap-Haitien police barracks before it was dismantled by citizens of this northern town this weekend, he says: ``I'm looking for photos of attaches so I can go after them to get their weapons.''
Just a few miles away, a group of young men paraded to the National Port Authority where about 1,900 US Marines have set up camp. One of them handed a pistol to the foreign troops, explaining that the jubilant crowd had taken it from an attache who had been hiding it in his home.
Guns in hiding
Many here fear that the vast network of pro-military supporters have weapon caches hidden throughout the country. Emmanuel Constant, leader of the largest organized paramilitary force, the National Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, insists that his members have turned in all their weapons.
FRAPH terrorized the population. Created by Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby last year, it was one of the key players in aborting the Governors Island Accord, which would have allowed Aristide to return Oct. 30, 1993.
``Without the presence of the Americans, it's a sure bet the attaches and members of FRAPH will resurface,'' says Ira Kurzban, Aristide's legal adviser, on a 48-hour visit here.
``So we have to figure out how to use our time wisely. The buy-back program is a very small part of a comprehensive disarmament program. We're working closely with the US to identify where the weapons are and have them turned over.
``It's in the best interest of the Americans, too,'' he adds, ``to get the weapons out of the hands of the very people who could kill them.''
Since there is no other option at present, the Aristide government and the US are counting on the cooperation of the Haitian police to help with the disarmament. But such a liaison is fraught with problems, as the Haitian people do not trust those responsible for their law enforcement. Many Haitians think the military, when given a chance, will do all they can to exert their authority again.
Aristide's government is hoping to avoid these types of complications by legally separating the police from the military and then reforming them.
The Haitian parliament, under the security of US troops, met yesterday in a special session to discuss the separation of the two forces, in addition to an amnesty law for those involved in the 1991 military coup d'etat.