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|Posted March 20, 2006|
|Danish film links Aristide to warlords|
|By MOZINGO, Miami Herald Staff Writer|
COURTESY OF 'GHOST OF CITE SOLEIL' PRESIDENT'S WARLORD: Jean Bart says he and his brother did former President Bertrand-Aristide's bidding. A new feature documentary shows how gang members in Haiti allegedly became former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's private army.
The images are raw as life in Haiti. Baby-faced teenagers rip through a slum in SUVs, holding AK-47s out the windows. Gang chiefs put on police uniforms and pile into a truck to defend the country's embattled president. They smoke joints by candlelight and mull their conflicted feelings over what they are doing.
The soon-to-be-released documentary, Ghosts of Cité Soleil, provides a devastating on-the-ground look at how President Jean-Bertrand Aristide allegedly enlisted and armed an array of slum gangs as his private militia.
Empowering the gangs set off a spree of killing and violence that not only spun out of Aristide's hands and helped lead to his ouster two years ago, but continues to overwhelm U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti and will likely be a make-or-break issue for incoming President René Préval.
The documentary, directed by Danish filmmaker Asger Leth, was shot in the weeks before and after Feb. 29, 2004, the day Aristide flew into exile while a rag-tag band of insurgents closed in on Port-au-Prince.
Aristide, a former slum priest, first came to power in 1991 and was ousted by the military seven months later. After U.S. troops restored Aristide to power in 1994, he disbanded the army and allegedly armed gangs in the slum of Cité Soleil to prevent another coup.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
The camera follows two brothers, 2pac and Bily, who were among Aristide's five go-to warlords, and French relief worker Eleonore Senlis, who falls for 2pac.
Bily is an increasingly disillusioned follower of Aristide, who won reelection in 2000 and remained a hero in Cité Soleil, near Port-au-Prince's seaport. 2pac no longer trusts Aristide, but is scared to betray him.''
All of the chiefs work for him, you know, go [guard] his house,'' 2pac says in one scene. ``And if I'm not going? I'm already dead. At this time, I don't have no choice, baby, I have to go.
''In the next scene, he and at least eight other gang members wearing police uniforms and black masks pull out of the slum waving their assault rifles from the back of a pickup. Their mission that day is unstated.
Another scene shows 2pac rolling through the slum in an SUV, blasting his own rap tape and greeting his neighbors like fans. In the back seat, a child, maybe 11 years old, clasps an AK-47. ''I have big boss in the government,'' 2pac says. ``So they gave me this car to work in, you see?
He grabs a placard from the dashboard that says: Official Vehicle, Mayor of Port-au-Prince.
'It's my pass,'' he says.
The intimate access that the two gang chiefs gave the cameraman, Milos Loncarevic, a close friend of Senlis, was extraordinary, allowing for a rare up-close and complex view of young men alternately portrayed as thugs or defenders of Haiti's dispossessed.
It also all but shatters Aristide's claims that he never used the gangs to do his bidding, and that he was kidnapped by U.S. troops on Feb. 29 and forced to leave the country.
Senlis recounts that the gang members who regularly guarded Aristide's home were told that night, for the first time, to go home just hours before he boarded the plane.
'The clever ones knew what was happening,'' she said in a telephone interview from Paris with The Miami Herald.
ORDERS FROM THE TOP
Senlis said orders to harass and attack Aristide's opponents usually came from the president through his Interior Minister, Jocelerme Privert, and Port-au-Prince police chief Hermione Leonard. The calls often came on Senlis's own cell phone, she added.
She said she feels that Aristide exploited the gang members -- called chiméres after a mythical monster or ghost -- and then left them to face the consequences.
Ghosts captures this sentiment but leaves out some of the details, aiming at mainstream audiences that may know nothing about Haiti's conflict yet might be drawn by the powerful imagery and haunting score by former Fugee singer Wyclef Jean. The producers, including Jean, are negotiating with a distributor to release the documentary in theaters.
In the film, 2pac is 26 and pumped up with rap music and a glorified view of war. He dreams of becoming a famous rapper like his icon Tupac Shakur. Bily is more idealistic, once trying to be a legitimate activist for the slum but ultimately running his own band of gunmen. He is coming to grips with the idea that Aristide, who once gave a sense of hope and identity to Haiti's poor, might betray them.
The brothers were orphaned as boys when their mother, a teacher, died.
Physically, they are not the jewelry-laden gangster-rappers they idolize, but products of one of the most wretchedly poor areas in the world. They are tall and thin, with arms dangling from wide-set shoulders. They shower with a bucket, sleep in sweltering tin shanties and strut through the mud streets with nothing more than flip-flops, shorts and their rifles.
They talk as if they were warriors. But they often come across as cocky children.
Senlis is their only connection to the outside world, the one who warns them that the rebels are coming and that Aristide might abandon them.
Tension grows between the brothers. When the gangs are distributing food from a truck one day, a fight breaks out, and Bily shoots one of 2pac's soldiers in the foot. In another scene, Bily rips a rifle from the hands of a 2pac follower.
As Aristide's government collapses, their world grows more uncertain.
Senlis: ``So you want to fight to the end for Aristide?''
Bily, hesitantly: ``Yes, yes.
''But he knows the end is not far off.
Cruising the slum the week before Aristide's departure, Bily pulls up to one of his fighters. ``Everything under control? he asks.
''We're just waiting to see what happens,'' the man says.
Bily tells him: ``I think the president might leave this week.''
Aristide left with his wife and their security guards, on a U.S. chartered plane. The chimére were on their own. Since then, a war among gangs and then firefights between gangs and U.N. Peacekeepers have ravaged Cité Soleil.
Nearly every character in the film -- including Winston ''2pac'' Jean Bart and James ''Bily'' Petit Frere -- were shot to death.
Reprinted from The Miami Herald of Monday, March 20, 2006.
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