Haiti aims to revive military as end of UN mission looms
Their heads held high and chests puffed out, a group of nearly 100 Haitian men in camouflage fatigues do jumping jacks or march around an abandoned UN compound on a recent morning. But after a few drills, they seek shelter from the blazing sun in the absence of anything else to do.
As UN military peacekeepers prepare for a full exit from this Caribbean nation, this small engineering corps is the first wave of Haiti's efforts to try and revive a military force some 22 years after a national army was disbanded. While Haiti is a long way off from having a real military, these initial efforts to build up a defence force, at whatever level, excites some and unnerves others.
"We're proud Haitians and we want to make the nation stronger," said Lt Ted Tesnor Wolsby, a base commander in the brigade that has received months of military training in Ecuador but has only intermittent duties fixing irrigation ditches or roads back in Haiti for salaries starting at $318 a month.
While it's easy to find citizens who strongly support reconstituting a Haitian army, particularly jobless young people, the idea alarms those who vividly remember times darkened by military coups and oppression.
"It's not a good idea, that's for sure," said Bobby Duval, a former soccer star who was arrested by the army in 1976 and starved and tortured while locked up for 17 months for speaking out against human-rights abuses under Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier's government.
Haitian leaders insist that a functioning defence force is urgently needed following a phased drawdown of all the remaining 2,370 UN military peacekeepers. The UN Security Council last week authorised an October 15 wrap-up of a 13-year stabilisation mission here, leaving behind a smaller peacekeeping operation for an initial period of six months, comprising 1,275 police who will continue training Haitian law enforcers.