Haiti's army reborn 20 years after it was demobilized

Leogane (Haiti) (AFP) –


Lined up in two long columns in the courtyard of a military base, hundreds of young men and a few women await interviews to join Haiti's national army.

After decades marked by coups and military interference in politics, Haiti demobilized its army in 1995, long before these potential recruits were born.

But now the government wants to rebuild the military, so these young people are stepping forward to do their patriotic duty -- and get a job in a country where poverty is extreme and unemployment is endemic.

There is an opening for 500 recruits between the ages of 18 and 25 years.

"Many young people after the last year of high school can't find much to do ... so for them this is a chance to find work and to serve their country," said Captain Louicin Dieudonne, in charge of recruitment at the Leogane military base east of the capital Port-au-Prince.

The screening for new recruits began Monday and continues throughout the week.

- Reclaiming sovereignty -

The poorest country in the Americas is invoking the need to "reclaim national sovereignty" as a 13-year UN peacekeeping mission comes to an end.

The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was deployed in 2004 to stem violence following the sudden departure of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and is set to leave in October amid an improving security situation and a successful electoral process after two years of political turmoil.

It will leave behind a residual training force of international police officers.

Like many people lined up, Benjamin Ferry said that patriotism was the driving force that led him to try to sign up.

The 24-year-old telecommunications student says he wants Haiti "to be responsible, without having to depend on foreigners as with the MINUSTAH."

With no declared enemy or known terrorist threat, Haitian officials say they plan to deploy troops along the border with the Dominican Republic to fight smuggling.

In the country routinely hit by disasters such as earthquakes and flooding, soldiers will also be deployed in vulnerable areas.

- Girls just as good as boys -

Government authorities wanted this new defense force to have men and women, but the number of potential female recruits can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

"Everything a boy does, a girl can do it so it's normal that they recruit girls too," Rood-Myline Louis proudly announces once her medical checkup is over, the last step of the first phase of recruitment.

The doors of the military base did not open until 9 am, but the 22-year-old girl arrived at 5 am to be sure that she could get in line.

"Since I was little, watching TV movies, I said that was what I wanted to do and my parents have never been against it," said Louis, who, more than anything, insists she wants to serve her country.

Haiti's previous armed forces were dissolved in 1995 by then president Aristide, who had been ousted in a military coup seven months after he took power in 1991. The coup regime collapsed in 1994, however, and Aristide regained power that year and served until 1996, and again from 2001 to 2004, when he was once again deposed in a revolt.

But the nation has a bloody history of brutal militias, which brought terror to the mountainous Caribbean nation under various leaders.

Captain Dieudonne swears that this dark page of Haitian history will not repeat itself with the new army.

"If we have a stable society where people respect the principles of democracy and the renewal of authorities every five years, there will not be these problems," Dieudonne said.

"With the training we are going to give, we'll prevent these young people from getting involved in politics, because politics destroys the army," he said.

Dieudonne is also tasked with keeping order in the large mess hall, where the potential recruits are showing their school graduation certificates and other documents needed to become a soldier.