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221 Boat People Return Home

By Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

With glum resignation, vague hope and lingering fear, 221 Haitian boat people came home Monday afternoon, filing off the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Northland at a Port-au-Prince harbor now teeming with U.S. combat forces in a ceremony U.S. officials called the first concrete demonstration of why America intervened militarily in Haiti.

Clad mostly in T-shirts and shorts or soiled dresses, their belongings tied up in plastic garbage bags, the men, women and children who fled Haiti's horrors of poverty and violence in rickety boats just months before were the first Haitians to voluntarily return from a makeshift camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba since thousands of U.S. forces entered Haiti a week ago.

"This is, in effect, a reverse flow of what we had a couple weeks ago," said U.S. Ambassador William Lacey Swing, who stood by the Coast Guard cutter's gangplank with the U.S. Forces commander, Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, to welcome the boat people home.

Arresting the tidal wave of Haitian refuge seekers that had filled the Caribbean with a precarious armada bound for U.S. shores was high among the reasons President Clinton used to justify a costly military intervention that already has left 11 Haitians dead.

On the surface, Monday's ceremony appeared to confirm how the U.S. presence and the promised return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide can end the U.S.-bound exodus.

In reality, the group of voluntary repatriates, plucked from the sea just months ago by Coast Guard patrols, were part of a weeks-old program to convince the 14,000 Haitians still at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, that it is better to come home than to live in limbo. Already, 5,783 Haitians have done so voluntarily on Coast Guard vessels since July 25.

But timing was everything on Monday. Ambassador Swing said the group's arrival - the first under the watchful guard of dozens of U.S. soldiers - was a demonstration that security in the country has improved enough to entice the rest back in what he predicted will be a rapidly escalating program.

For most of the refugees, the homecoming from a painful journey that ended where it had begun was clouded with uncertainty. None had abandoned the dream of reaching American soil someday, but most said they agreed to return largely because they were resigned to the impossibility of ever reaching it from Guantanamo Bay.