Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti's Exiled Former President Vows To Return

The exiled former president of Haiti, Jean-Betrand Aristide, makes a statement of support for the people of Haiti. Photograph: South Africa government press office/EPA

By David Smith,
Friday 15 January 2010

A tearful Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled former president of Haiti, announced his intention today to return to his quake-devastated homeland.

Aristide, who has been based in South Africa since he was ousted in a 2004 rebellion, said he wanted to help rebuild his country in the wake of Tuesday's disaster, thought to have killed tens of thousands.

"We feel deeply and profoundly that we should be there, in Haiti, with them, trying our best to prevent death," Aristide told a press conference at an airport hotel in Johannesburg, standing alongside his wife, Mildred. He said friends were ready to give him a plane to return with emergency supplies.

Tears streaming down his face, Aristide continued: "We cannot wait to be with our sisters and brothers in Haiti. We share the anguish of all Haitians in the diaspora who are desperate to reach family and loved ones.

"As far as we are concerned we are ready to leave today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, to share in their suffering, help rebuild the country, moving from misery to poverty with dignity."

Aristide's wife stood with her eyes downcast, twisting a handkerchief. Both dabbed their eyes as they left after the brief statement.

A South African foreign affairs ministry official, Saul Kgomotso Molobi, said Aristide would not take questions because "the situation is difficult and unbearable for the family". He added that South Africa knew of no plans for Aristide to return to Haiti.

Aristide was a priest in the Haitian slum of La Saline before becoming the country's first elected president in 1990. He was ousted in a military coup the following year, then restored to power by US troops in 1994.

After stepping down, he was re-elected in 2000 but ousted again in a bloody 2004 rebellion.

He has rarely spoken in public since he was flown to South Africa on a US plane, though he released a statement earlier this week expressing solidarity with Haitians.

"It is a tragedy that defies expression, a tragedy that compels all people to the highest levels of human compassion and solidarity," he said.

Haitian protesters have periodically called for Aristide's return over the years. In speeches relayed to supporters in Haiti from South Africa, he has hinted at going back, but said he merely wants to be a teacher.

Aristide and his wife live with their two daughters in a government villa in Pretoria. The couple have embraced an academic life, with Aristide writing on the linguistics of Zulu and Haitian Creole, as well as on the theology of love.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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