PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Their military fatigues faded and their grizzled faces stern, the squad of veterans barks out orders to rows of young men and women who sweat as they run through exercises under the blazing Caribbean sun.
The more than 150 volunteers who have gathered on a hilltop outside the capital are desperate for a chance to serve their country. Many say they are anxious to bring security to Haiti and help end its long series of troubles.
But the would-be recruits don't really have any place to go: Haiti has no army - or any other military forces for that matter.
The drill leaders and ranks of volunteers who have eagerly assembled here represent nothing more than an informal movement of Haitians eager to re-establish an army - an idea that unnerves Haitians who remember times darkened by military coups, oppression and abuse.
The Haitian army was disbanded in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after he had been deposed in a coup and then restored to power with the help of U.N. forces. The continuing presence of U.N. troops is a sore point for many Haitians.
The two candidates vying for Haiti’s presidency in the March 20 vote both support restoring the armed forces in some form. That’s raised the hopes of many among the ragtag recruits, who run through several hours of drills three times a week without any pay.
“I want to see order in my country,” says 26-year-old Pierre Jeans Rigaud, a neatly dressed student from the neighborhood. “We all want to see it.”
The prospect of a new military is especially attractive for young Haitians, given the scarcity of jobs. An estimated 70 percent of the population is younger than 30, according to the Washington-based group, Population Action International. Even before the January 2010 earthquake, unemployment was widespread and 80 percent of the people lived in poverty.
Delise Wilson, 36, who survives by grabbing whatever sewing jobs he can, says: “If the army is coming back, I want to be part of it. ... Even if they don’t have any money, I’m willing to volunteer to protect the country.”
Nestor Apolon, the squad’s self-appointed commander, says “thousands and thousands” are waiting to be trained.
While there are no weapons visible at the makeshift base in Carrefour, a dusty maze of dirt lanes and concrete shacks, there are reminders of Haiti’s military past.
Apolon, for one, proudly acknowledges he fought with the rebels who ousted Aristide for a second time in 2004. A man guarding the gate wears a key chain adorned with the faces of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former dictators known as “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc.”
Others in the compound served from 1991-94, when the army ruled Haiti and committed some of the worst human rights violations in recent memory. Some contend they’re technically still on duty: They claim Aristide’s 1995 demobilization was unconstitutional.
Together, it’s a tableaux of the pro-military fringe right, a looming presence in Haiti.
“The Haitian army has basically been an army that’s been used against the Haitian people,” said Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody. “It was there as an instrument of repression, so it’s hard to see what Haiti gains by bringing back the army.”
Presidential candidate Mirlande Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, says that if elected, she would favor the formation of a military to protect the security of the nation. But, she stressed, it would have to honor human rights.
“Nobody would like the armed forces as they existed before,” she told The Associated Press. “There’s no way the old practices could be renewed in Haiti.”
Her rival, former singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, says a new national security force could include engineers and a medical corps to respond to natural disasters. He also would like to see Haitian troops replace the U.N. force, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, that has kept order since Aristide was deposed.
“The MINUSTAH are there because we did not have our own force to secure the country in case of chaos,” Martelly said.
Such comments reflect a deep sense of Haitian patriotism.
David Dorme, a former army sergeant helping train the Carrefour recruits, bitterly criticizes foreign troops for performing a duty that he says the country could handle on its own - and for failing to control spiraling crime rates.
“When the Haitian army was here, we didn’t have kidnappings and thievery,” he said.
Few debate the need for more security. For the whole nation of 9 million people, there are just 8,400 poorly equipped police officers - about 40 percent of the number actually needed, says Police Chief Mario Andresol.
Parts of the country go unpatrolled, and some divisions such as an airport security force or environmental protection unit exist only on paper, he said. While he hopes the next president will fully develop the police forces before allocating money for an army, Andresol said a military force is needed to patrol Haiti’s coastline and remote regions where smugglers receive South American drug shipments bound for the United States.
Laurent Dubois, a Haitian historian and professor at Duke University, said the key is to determine what role a new military would have.
The presidential candidates must have “an open and clear discussion,” he said. “Precisely what kind of army will it be and what will its role in Haitian civil society be? What will it be trained and deployed to do?”
Andresol, who was an army captain before being inscribed into the police force, said Haiti’s next government should break a past practice of having soldiers perform civilian assignments. For example, after going through a year of training at the U.S. Army-run School of Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, Andresol found himself assigned to traffic duty. Such misuse, he said, created an opportunity for trouble by putting soldiers trained for combat in public service roles.
“According to the law, the police cannot establish order. Our mission is to maintain order,” he said.
If the army were resurrected, Andresol is certain its ranks would be filled. Just take a look at the police force, he says: At least 30,000 people are waiting to join.
But news that men were training recruits on the hilltop in Carrefour made the chief frown. In the past, he said, similar groups have misled poor people, tricking them into believing such training would help them land police or security jobs.
He said he would send officers to check on the band, and warned that organizers could face arrest.