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Airlift Aristide: A Flight to Exile

Stranded in Africa, Haiti's Ousted Leader Inspires Friends to Dash to His Rescue

By Peter Eisner
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 19, 2004; Page C01


Central African Republic

Descending through the clouds from 45,000 feet over the Ubangi River, it was a bit late to be raising concerns about the danger ahead of us en route to pick up ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In Kingston, the Aristides are welcomed by the Jamaican minister Delano Franklin. (Associated Press)

But some of the participants in the mission, whose convivial laughter had been contagious as we flew 6,638 miles through the night from Miami to the heart of Africa, were now talking about bad omens, mosquitoes and the possibility that we could be imprisoned or worse.

"We cannot discount the danger that we could be killed," said one of the members of the delegation on the way to fetch Aristide from what appeared to be palace arrest. "That's why we decided to have along journalists as insurance."

There were two reporters aboard the flight that flew Aristide this week to Jamaica, where he plans to spend the next several months, perhaps strategizing his next steps toward a potential return to power. One was Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now," a program on public radio and public access television. The other was me.

"What dangers?" I asked.

"Well, who knows to what ends the United States will go to keep Aristide from returning home?" said Ira Kurzban, Aristide's lawyer, also on board and responsible for chartering the flight. But death at the hands of the U.S. government seemed unlikely. There were more down-to-earth concerns.

"I've also been told that there's a highly lethal strain of malaria in the Central African Republic," said Randall Robinson, former president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington lobbying and research group. "It can kill."

The travelers hardly had time to pack a change of clothes, let alone get a supply of insect repellent, before racing to Miami for this most unusual rescue mission -- if indeed it was a rescue mission.

While it was apparent that Aristide was in some form of custody in the Central African Republic, the exact terms of his arrival there and his status were not clear when we arrived, and are not clear even now.

The U.S. government said Aristide had resigned on Feb. 29, but Aristide said he had not. Luis Moreno, second in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, had described exchanging pleasantries with Aristide and then bidding him farewell at the airport. Aristide had described being kidnapped, surrounded by armed guards and obliged to board a U.S. plane with no idea where the Americans were taking him.

He found himself deposited in the Central African Republic, a country of just more than 3 million, slightly smaller in area than Texas, in the middle of the continent. It is the former demesne of self-proclaimed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the late despot who was accused of cannibalism and of throwing his political opponents to the crocodiles.

For many hours, the Gulfstream jet had been an insulating cocoon for the mission, led by Robinson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), an outspoken critic of Bush administration policy toward Haiti. Also aboard were her husband, Sidney Williams, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas; Kurzban; and a Jamaican legislator, Sharon Hays Webster.

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