PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haitian artist Ernest Belizaire was returned to Haiti on the first U.S. Coast Guard boat repatriating refugees this week -- even though his neighbors say well-armed police had shown up looking for him and he shouldn't come home.
Even though some of his fellow activists on the neighborhood committee supporting deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been seized by police and never heard from again.
Even though he painted his political loyalties in bold colors all over the walls of the Des Dalle slum where he lived -- paintings of Father Aristide and his political symbol, a fighting rooster, as well as pro-democracy political murals portraying former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier as Mickey Mouse and demanding "Justice for Everyone."
"All the police knew me," Mr. Belizaire said. "I was the one who decorated the streets with pro-Aristide graffiti."
The day of the Sept. 30 military-led coup that ousted Father Aristide, he recalled, "I ran from alleyway to alleyway. Now I'm afraid to even paint."
"I can't go back home to the city," Mr. Belizaire said in a provincial home away from Port-au-Prince where he is staying with his family. "I would like to apply for asylum through the U.S. Embassy, but I would have to go to Port-au-Prince and someone might see me."
His neighbors back in Des Dalle fear he may be killed by army or paramilitary forces if he returns.
"If he comes back, he could have problems," said Frida Pierre, 53. "All the Aristide activists are scattered. They arrested some of them and we don't know if they're alive or dead."
"The security situation is bad," added Abaki Etienne, 22, a former member of the Aristide political committee called Lavalas -- "Landslide" -- who was shot in the leg by police during the coup.
Mr. Etienne returned from hiding in the Dominican Republic two months ago, but still worries about being too visible in public.
"The police were looking for [Ernest] after the coup," he said, "I'm afraid to be back, myself. I don't know if they will come looking for me."
Mr. Belizaire is puzzled by being granted what he says was only five minutes to make his case for asylum aboard a Coast Guard cutter that picked him up after he fled Haiti in a leaky boat Nov. 29. He believes he meets that "plausible fear of persecution" yardstick used by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But his plea was rejected, and he was taken with thousands of other boat people to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There, he says, he wrote a statement in Creole detailing his fears and then gave it to U.S. officials. He said he repeatedly asked for a new interview to press his claim, but never got one.
Refugee advocates in the United States say such cases are typical and they are highly critical of U.S. methods for identifying those who should be granted asylum.
When Mr. Belizaire returned to Haiti Monday, he gave Haitian immigration police a fake address. He allowed them to fingerprint him. But when it came time for them to take his picture, he mingled with the crowd of journalists, refugees and International Red Cross officials and then slipped out the door.
"I didn't even wait for the Red Cross bus," he said. "I ran."
For now, he is relatively safe. Mr. Belizaire said the local army informers don't know him in the town where he shares a home with his wife and 15 children and relatives. It is the home he fled to during the bloody days after the coup, when army troops killed an estimated 1,500 people, according to international human rights groups.