Provincial Haitians came by the tens of thousands, in cars and packed into and atop bright buses painted with the words of Jesus. The visitors wore blue and red bandanas and T-shirts, matching the colors of the flags they waved in a jubilant celebration that is being called "Haiti's Independence Day."
Haiti's Mardi Gras traditionally is a time of wild celebration in colorful costumes to a pulsating Caribbean beat. But this year, four days after president Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, the festivities have added the fervor of a political rally and a religious revival.
"It's a celebration of liberty because the president was no good for Haiti," said Orel Toyo, 29. "It's a day of independence for Haiti. It's like the Fourth of July in the United States. It's better than any carnival."
The effervescence here was not found in the same degree in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where violence following Duvalier's departure resulted in imposition of a curfew and, effectively, cancellation of Mardi Gras.
The formal program in Gonaives included prayers and hymns sung from the steps of the Catholic Church in the center of town. Informally, impromptu bands marked the pace for hundreds of people marching through the side streets. One procession carried a large coffin marked for Duvalier.
T-shirts for sale on street corners underscored the poignancy of this town being selected as the site for the festival. "Gonaives -- the pivotal city of the revolution," it said.
Another popular T-shirt said: "Haiti liberated -- long live liberty!" followed by the date, Feb. 7, 1986, that Duvalier left.
"It's fantastic!" said Jean Emile, a retired plantation worker from Cap-Haitien. "For 29 years of Duvaliers' rule, everybody was suffering."
The downfall of the dynasty began in November with street protests in Gonaives, 90 miles from the capital, and 70 miles farther north in Cap-Haitien. Young people angered over deepening poverty and high unemployment led the demonstrations. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Three students were killed here by security forces in the first demonstration. Those killings set off further protests, and the Army responded with guns and tear gas.
In Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, a tailor and two children were reported to have been killed by automatic-weapons fire during an antigovernment demonstration. The next day, demonstrators set fire to the civil court building here in Gonaives.
Today's festivities were a "fraternization" project between Cap-Haitien and Gonaives, and began shuttling thousands of people from Cap-Haitien early this morning.
Many of the bus riders clamored for seats on the buses' luggage racks. Most wore head bands of red and blue, the colors of Haiti's traditional flag, first borrowed from the French tricolor and now the symbol of what people on the street are calling the liberation.
The late Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Jean-Claude's father, had changed the colors to red and black -- the black to stress "negritude" or "black consciousness" and a break from Haiti's European colonial past. Yesterday, red-and-black flags were nowhere to be seen. Many of them had been destroyed in the celebrations that erupted after Duvalier fled.
Along the 70-mile route from Cap-Haitien to Gonaives today, children lined up waving tree branches and singing "A New Haiti" in Creole as the buses rolled past. Women in colorful wrap skirts, balancing water pails and wicker baskets on their heads, cheered the rumbling caravan.
Journalists had, for the most part, been barred from leaving the capital in their coverage of the past two weeks' events. But today the travel restrictions were eased.
Residents here described Gonaives and Cap-Haitien as tense during the days after Duvalier first declared a state of siege, with the Army enforcing a strict sundown curfew and the notorious security force known as the Ton-Tons Macoutes penalizing any violators.
Some residents reported incidents of soldiers firing into the air to disperse spontaneous demonstrations that broke out after the state of siege, but none offered reliable numbers of those killed or wounded.
Buildings and sidewalks in both cities still bore the graffiti of the earlier demonstrations, such spray-painted slogans, in French and Creole, as "Down with Duvalier" and "Democracy, not Dictatorship."
Cap-Haitien and Gonaives apparently were spared the kind of revenge-fueled violence that rocked Port-au-Prince.