Haitians who can slip away to the beach to escape tension in the capital


GRESSIER, Haiti -- What to do on a hot, sunny Sunday when U.S. troops are patrolling the streets of your capital and occasional gunfire disturbs the peace? Head to the beach, of course.

The grill is burning, the red snapper is just out of the net, the corn and the mangoes are ripe. The band has everyone stomping.

This is a world away from the dust, the dirt and the tension of Port-au-Prince, although it is only 15 miles south of the city. Here the beachgoers sit under broad-leafed almond trees or in the shade of coconut palms and forget their woes.

With gasoline costing $15 a gallon, only the rich or the middle class can afford to come here. The only reminders of their troubled times are the distant gray hulks of U.S. warships on the horizon of the azure blue sea, in which bathers splash and cuddle.

Nancy Jacques, 25, a lawyer's secretary, is here with her brother, Lafayette, 22, a student economist, and her sister Samona, 13. They are the children of a businessman.

Samona has her mind not on political crisis and possible civil war, but on Steven Seagal and Tom Cruise, her favorite actors. All she wants to know is when the commercial flights to New York, blocked by the embargo, are going to start again. She is glad to hear that the airport at Port-au-Prince would reopen for civilian flights this week. It makes her teen-age dream of a trip to the United States just a little more realistic.

Lafayette Jacques wants to know how long the Americans will be here. He sees their presence as an "occupation," and it offends him. He doubts that exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will ever return.

"Perhaps in two weeks there will be war in Haiti," he says glumly.

What bothers his older sister is that an Aristide government might cost her her job or the family its car. She foresees supporters of Father Aristide being given all the jobs. She recalls that during his seven months as president, Father Aristide urged the poor to take what was rightfully theirs from the rich. Therein lies the threat to the family car.

"If you have a car, they are going to take your car," she says. "Aristide is jealous, not only of the rich, but the middle class."

At another table, Yolene Paul, 25, is enjoying the beach with a group that includes her boyfriend, Frantz Dubuche, 31, and other young Haitians. The couple are both students.

By dividing the cost of gasoline, the journey is affordable enough for them to come to this oasis of seaside fun twice a month.

"Things are going to change," she says, munching grilled corn. "We have had three years of misery, without any security."

Mr. Dubuche, sipping a fresh fruit-juice cocktail, the long, black seeds floating on the surface, is not so sure.

"Everyone has his own opinion. No one knows what is going to happen. We live always in hope," he says.

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