PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Young men gripping a steel fence along Port-au-Prince’s waterfront call out “Hi, Sir!” to two U.S. Army soldiers, pleading for jobs as translators, drivers, laborers.
None are getting any jobs today. But that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the U.S. military, despite a checkered history in Haiti for the forces that are now providing a huge humanitarian mission after the Jan. 12 earthquake killed at least 150,000 people.
“The Americans are our friends,” said Jean Rony Doudou, a 28-year-old jobseeker. “They are here to help us.”
Many Haitians – at least for now – share that sentiment as they see U.S. troops bandaging the wounded, clearing debris, handing out food and water and even directing traffic. The soldiers are generating goodwill and are given a large degree of credit for keeping Haiti relatively peaceful during these worst of circumstances.
And for the soldiers, Haiti is a welcome respite from dodging suicide bombers, snipers and roadside explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Here you don’t go in there with your war face,” said Sgt. Warren Bell from Hampton, Va., a paratrooper who did three tours in Iraq before handing out meals in Haiti. “You go in there with your peace face. You try and treat people like you would in the United States.”
“We want to show that face of compassion,” Capt. Clark Carpenter, a spokesman for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, said in Leogane, just west of the capital. “We’re here to help the Haitian people. We’re here to get relief to them as quickly as possible.”
American troops, part of a 20,000-strong U.S. military humanitarian mission in Haiti, are not supposed to be arresting looters.
“They are not there to participate in any police operations,” said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command.
But as Haitian police and private security guards struggle to maintain control, the U.S. soldiers will have to decide how and whether to get involved.
A dozen Army soldiers decided to take action Friday when they came upon a violent confrontation after a private security guard shot and killed a man who was among a group of organized looters inside an appliance store. The U.S. Army 82nd Airborne platoon, which happened to be on patrol nearby, rushed up and quickly dominated the scene, shouting “Stop it!” and pulling guards off the captives.
The crowd outside cheered the Americans. But the incident underscored the tensions and growing frustrations among Haitians in the earthquake’s aftermath, which could present a security challenge for U.S. troops.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Billman sees the Haiti mission as a way to change opinions after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal tarnished the military’s image.
“Now they see us helping others in a third-world country. They see us bringing food,” said Billman, 30, of Centerville, S.D. “They know there is a softer side.”
Billman, who now leads supply convoys from the airport to the paratroopers’ base in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince, had to hop out recently to check on a truck that broke down. In Iraq, it would have exposed him to a possible ambush. Here, Haitians patted him on the back and thanked him for coming.
“It felt safe walking down the road. I wasn’t worried about some guy on a rooftop,” Billman said. “All they want is food and water from us.”
The Haiti effort could not be more multinational – with peacekeepers, rescue teams and medical volunteers from across the planet – but the U.S. presence is the most visible. There are more than 6,000 troops on the ground, including Marines west of Port-au-Prince and an 82nd Airborne Division brigade in the city. The rest are aboard 23 Navy vessels, led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort has treated more than 3,000 patients since arriving Jan. 20, and more than 400 earthquake victims have been evacuated from Haiti on military flights.
The troops run orderly food distributions where there have been many warm encounters with Haitians.
Outside the destroyed Hotel Montana on Friday, a half dozen children, all living in a field since their homes were destroyed, stopped to greet U.S. soldiers guarding the front. The kids started doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and the soldiers joined in.
“They’re good. They dance really well,” said 12-year-old Samuel Petion.
His brother, 16-year-old Jethro, added: “They’ve come to do some good works here.”
Some Haitians even rate the Americans more highly than their own government, which, to be fair, lost many senior officials and virtually all of its important buildings in the earthquake.
“I hope the Americans stay forever so things can get better,” said 38-year-old Lenau Deschamps, an ice vendor who has camped out on a wooden pallet near the ruined National Palace since his house was destroyed. “We should keep the Americans and get rid of the Haitian government because it’s worthless.”
But many know the good feelings could come to an end.
For two decades in the early 20th century, the U.S. occupied the country – sometimes in brutal fashion. Later, it supported despotic rulers, including the notorious Duvalier dynasty. U.S. troops also helped return Bertrand Aristide, the fiery priest and president beloved by the poor who was ousted in a coup.
Some say that history is one reason to keep the American mission as short as possible.
“Our country is in a situation in which it needs help and we can’t manage on our own,” said Anne Doris Vital, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at the University of Haiti. “I appreciate having them here, but I don’t want this to turn into an occupation.”
Another student, 25-year-old Wesly Sagesse, agreed: “We are patriots and we only want to see American troops here until we can get back on our feet.”
For now, though, the U.S. forces are performing some badly needed functions – handing out food, clearing debris, and even creating artificial beaches in the capital’s destroyed harbor to offload aid in commercial chip containers.
“They could take over the country,” 19-year-old Nickinson Rene said with a laugh, watching an oversized, olive-green bulldozer at work. “As long as they give us jobs.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Maurer, Ted Shaffrey and Michelle Faul in Port-au-Prince and Charles J. Hanley in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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