At first it looked like an old glove, black and rubbery and flattened in traffic. But a closer look revealed toenails.
The human foot was the last recognizable bit of a headless and burned body still smoldering Thursday in the middle of a busy road in this capital city, which has been convulsed for a week by demonstrations that have left at least 19 people dead. Officials here said at least four people, including three police officers, have been beheaded in violence committed by supporters of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Sentilus Sherulist, 33, stood near the smoking remains, his shoeshine kit in one hand and a little bell to call customers in the other. He said he was finally back at work here in the sprawling slum known as La Saline after the violence kept him at home for days. Asked what had caused the rioting, Sherulist said: "Things are hard. Life is not easy. A lot of people are hungry. A lot of people want Aristide to come back."
The violence has been portrayed by officials here as a harsh expression of popular support for Aristide, who left the country in February in the face of an armed uprising. Government officials have said Aristide's supporters, especially in the vast slums of the capital of the hemisphere's poorest country, are mimicking the savage practices of some Iraqi insurgents with a beheading campaign in their quest to return a president they believe was forced to leave under U.S. pressure.
The violence also interrupted deliveries of relief supplies to the northern city of Gonaives, which suffered massive death and destruction when Tropical Storm Jeanne hit on Sept. 18. More than 3,000 people were killed or are missing, and most of the city's 200,000 residents were left homeless by ravaging floods. The country's main commercial port sits adjacent to La Saline -- the main gate is just a few yards from where the charred body lay in the street Thursday -- and tons of food supplies were stranded there during the violence, relief officials said.
"The situation is volatile," said Anne Poulsen, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program. She said 135 containers with about 2,500 tons of emergency food had been stuck at the port for more than a week. The violence made it impossible to enter the port, she said, and customs officials and other port workers had refused to come to work for days. "You can't blame people for not wanting to risk their lives," Poulsen said.
Poulsen said relief agency trucks, escorted by U.N. peacekeeping troops and Haitian police, were finally able to move nine containers with about 180 tons of food out of the port on Thursday. She said that food would be trucked to Gonaives, where thousands of homeless people are still living almost exclusively on donated goods.
Police and members of the 3,000-member peacekeeping force, which is led by Brazil and has been in Haiti since Aristide left, cracked down on the violence in the past two days and arrested scores of people.
Gerard Latortue, the U.S.-backed interim prime minister, has blamed the violence on street gangs roaming the city with machetes and guns and shouting for Aristide's return.
Leslie Voltaire, who had been in Aristide's cabinet, denied Thursday that Aristide's supporters, or members of his Lavalas political party, were behind the beheadings. Voltaire, in an interview, accused the Latortue government or its supporters among former members of the armed forces of committing the violence as an excuse to crack down on Aristide's followers.
Former members of the military, disbanded by Aristide a decade ago, led the uprising that ousted Aristide, now in exile in South Africa. While not part of the interim government, they are still a powerful presence in many parts of Haiti.
The beheadings are "not a Lavalas thing," Voltaire said. "This is not the practice of Lavalas, and Lavalas is not benefiting. Who is benefiting is the ex-militaries who need to crush the popular support for Aristide."
The violence erupted on Sept. 30, during a Lavalas march through the center of this sweltering city. Voltaire said thousands of Aristide loyalists were marching peacefully, their ninth such demonstration in recent months, when police shot into the crowd. Then the demonstrators "began acting like hooligans because they were furious" about being fired upon, he said. Police said they fired only after the demonstrators turned violent.
The result was more than a week of violence that caused businesses to close and stopped downtown traffic, as barricades of tires burned at major intersections. Late Thursday afternoon, the streets of La Saline and Bel Air, another downtown neighborhood, were black with soot and the remains of burned tires. More fires could be seen deep inside Bel Air, which was inaccessible to traffic because of makeshift roadblocks. Most stores remained closed because of fear of more violence.
"If Aristide would come back, I would love it," said Granol Pelon Altidor, 42, a mother of nine standing a few feet from the charred corpse. "My life is much worse now. People are dumping bodies here and there is lots of insecurity. And the prices of food and everything else is three times higher than it used to be."
Voltaire said those sentiments are widely held among Haiti's poor, who overwhelmingly supported Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who emerged from a poor parish of this city to win the first truly democratic elections in Haiti in 1990. Aristide was ousted by a military coup just months after he took office, then restored to power by the U.S. military in 1994. He was reelected in 2000 but left office when confronted with the rebel uprising, allegations that his government was corrupt and employed armed gangs to control the population, and a loss of confidence in him by his former allies in Washington.
"After seven months of governing, nothing is happening in the slums," Voltaire said. "There is no work, no nothing. Aristide spoke to the people, but this government is not. If we want to have peace, we need to have a national dialogue and a sharing of responsibilities that includes Lavalas. This government is not doing that."