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For survivors of the violence in the hemisphere's poorest country - many of them in hiding - modern cell phones have turned what might have been a post-coup information blackout on its head.
One call from Haiti to a California radio station covering the coup aftermath came like so many others: on a shaky cell phone, with a connection that crackled and faded in and out, but which carried a clear message. This time it was the mayor of Milo, hiding from a group of armed former military men and convicted death squad leaders.
"We are swimming in blood everywhere. The oppression is atrocious," said Jean Charles Moise, who advocates for the return of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Moise's district of 50,000 persons counts many being targeted now by gunmen of the National Liberation and Reconstruction Front.
Noel Vincent, a literacy teacher, is using cell phones to report from Cap Haitian to family in Florida. "I am so afraid I may never see you again," he told relatives as a reporter was allowed to listen in. "You must tell everyone what is happening here and in the Central Plateau... The death squads are reforming and they are coming for all who support democracy."
Cell phones became widely available only a few years ago with the establishment of the Celcom and Haitel networks. Cheaply made cell phones are sold even in the most isolated villages, and Haitians have found pay-as-you-go cell phones to be an effective way to communicate in a country where one can wait five years to have a landline phone installed.
A battered and dirty cell phone is Andralese Lafortune's most prized possession. The 49-year-old high school teacher from Gonaives is in hiding too.
"During the last coup, we didn't have any way to reach the outside world," Lafortune recalls. "For three years we suffered under a repressive regime, while many were killed and tortured. But we had no voice then. We were muzzled."
Now Lafortune's daily challenge is finding electricity to charge her scarred blue and gray Nokia flip phone. With it she calls relatives in other parts of Haiti and abroad. One of them put her in touch with American journalists.
Many are dying violently at the hands of anti-Aristide forces, Lafortune says. She "cries," she says, when her cell phone battery dies because "then I am alone. Anything could happen to me and no one would know."
One U.S. attorney, Brian Concannon, receives reports from Haiti to his office in Miami by cell phone. He says one caller told him two witnesses who testified in a case against death squad members in which he was assisting have had their homes burned down.
Mike Levy, a journalist with the Haitian News Agency AHP, Haiti's largest wire service, who also says thousands of Haitians are in hiding, reports - by cell phone - that many have been arrested simply for their membership in Lavalas, the political party with which President Aristide is affiliated.
During a March 14 press conference in Port-au-Prince, Leon Charles, the new director general of the Haitian National Police and a staunch supporter of those who overthrew Aristide, outlined for reporters his plans to arrest more Lavalas members. He called the party a "criminal" group.
From her hiding place in a mountainous village one young girl spoke by cell phone about the actions the National Liberation and Reconstruction Front has taken against those who are affiliated with Lavalas.
"I saw them come with many guns to a home. The guns were brand new and the boys holding them were not adults yet." The sound of static and the unmistakable thump of helicopters were audible as she spoke. "They took the people out of the home and took them away in truck with their hands tied behind their backs. They stole all the things from the house and then set it on fire."
It is through cell phone accounts on the spot that reporters outside of Haiti first heard of helicopters with searchlights being used by members of the former military to hunt down those hiding in Haiti's north.
Jean Kernazan is a radio producer on Radio Soley in Brooklyn, home to the largest Haitian community in the United States. Kernazan says he's spending hundreds of dollars weekly on calls to cell phones in Haiti. Many callers from Haiti, in order to save money, place quick calls and ask to be called back.
"In 1991 (when the last coup occurred) it was almost impossible for people, especially in the countryside, to get the word out," Kernazan says. "But today we can practically save people's lives with a cell phone.
"To put it simply," Kernazan says, "the expense of these phone calls to Haiti are driving me to the poor house, but they're worth every penny."
Dennis Bernstein is executive producer of Pacifica Radio's "Flashpoints" (KPFA-FM 94.1 in Berkeley, Calif.). Lyn Duff ([email protected]) is a writer currently based in Jerusalem. She traveled to Haiti in 1995 to help establish that country's first children's radio station. She is writing a book on Haiti. This story was written on 3/19/04
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