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Report from Haiti: Port-au-Prince Streets Go from Dicey to Treacherous


Widespread lawlessness and chaos is gripping Haiti's capital, where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is facing increasing pressure to resign. Die-hard backers of the embattled leader are terrorizing people they suspect of non-allegiance to Mr. Aristide, including a flood of foreigners desperate to leave the country.

The streets of Port-au-Prince have gone from dicey to treacherous. Normally clogged with all manner of vehicles, the roads are now the domain of the brave, or the foolhardy.

Many streets are littered with burned out cars, concrete blocks and old tires, put there as barricades by President Aristide's most ardent supporters: ruffians known locally as "chimeres," or "ghosts."

At one barricade, a gang of about 20 young males surrounds all who stop. An 18-year-old who declines to identify himself says his goal is to slow any attacks by rebels from the north, who have pledged to take Port-au-Prince by force unless President Aristide resigns.

The youth says, if the rebels come, no matter what they do, we will defend ourselves any way we can.

The gang allows this reporter to pass unharmed. Elsewhere in the city, other motorists are not so lucky. Many Aristide backers see the international community as conspiring to remove their president from power, and foreigners are increasingly coming under attack.

At Port-au-Prince's international airport, American missionary Rodney Smoker and his aged grandmother wait anxiously to board a flight out of Haiti, after surviving a hair-raising encounter with the "chimeres."

"Just coming to the airport, we went through a neighborhood and they [thugs] jumped on us," he said. "There were about 15-to-20 guys. They jumped on our van and were going through all of our stuff, ripping through all of our stuff. My grandma was crying," he said.

Mr. Smoker is abandoning Haiti after 18 years of missionary work. He says he is heartbroken, and has come to wonder whether his efforts to bring a better life to Haiti's people have been in vain.

"It is hard, because they have so much potential, they have so much love," he said. "They have character. But then there is the bitterness, the hatred that is in them, it is in their hearts. That is what kills me. Sometime I think, 'Wow, is it even worth it [to be in Haiti]?'"

Standing in line behind Mr. Stoker is another missionary, Irma Carr, who says she fears a bloodbath in Haiti between President Aristide's backers and opponents, with millions of innocent people caught in the crossfire.

"I pray not, but there very well could be [a bloodbath]. Look at all the lives that have been taken already. I would not be surprised. That is why we are leaving. Our church is evacuating us," he said.

Those still in Port-au-Prince, Haitian and foreigner alike, face the prospect of the complete dissolution of public security and a situation that grows more tense and desperate by the hour.