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Storm, strife add up to "infernal year'

First the Charriot family home was shot up by gunmen in January. Then it was set on fire.

Just to add to their woes, Tropical Storm Jeanne flooded the house with 7 feet of water last weekend.

Whether it's political turmoil or Mother Nature _ or both _ there seems to be no escaping misfortune for the 220,000 inhabitants of this stricken city.

"It's been an infernal year," said a mud-spattered Marie-Lauren Charriot, 60, standing outside her flooded home on Rue Christophe, one of the city's main streets.

"We've been hit from all sides," adds the stoic woman who wears her hair tucked up in a black knit hair net. "I've no idea what comes next."

As the floodwaters subside and a major international relief effort gets under way, the scale of the disaster remains overwhelming. Some 1,500 people are believed to have died, with hundreds more missing. Thousands are homeless, without food or water.

But the devastation wrought by Jeanne is only the latest in a series of blows that have turned the lives of the city's residents upside down in the last nine months.

Their fate is especially cruel for the people of Gonaives. It was meant to be a year of celebration, marking the city's special place in Haitian history as the birthplace of independence from France 200 years ago.

Instead, the anniversary was marred by political violence. In January a bloody rebellion against the government led to a month-long siege of the city.

There was something to celebrate _ at least for residents who opposed the government _ when president Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile in late February.

But the relative peace that returned after his fall was literally only the calm before the storm.

On Rue Christophe, events have left no one untouched. Up and down the street every resident has a story, providing a microcosm of what the city has gone through this year as it lurched from one crisis to the next.

January actually began on a high note for Charriot with a homecoming. Her son, Casimir, arrived in the city Jan. 7 with his wife to take up a job as a police inspector. The couple had just gotten married the month before.

But events quickly turned ugly. Political tension had been mounting for some time with street demonstrations against Aristide. Residents were angry over the increasingly repressive tactics of the local government.

Much of their rage was directed at the local police station that had been taken over by a heavily-armed special police unit of presidential guards sent from the capital to restore order. Inspector Charriot was shocked by the way his fellow officers were rounding up opponents of the government, beating and torturing them in their cells.

When he made his objections known, he became a target, too.

One night in late January gunmen opened fire on the house. Charriot believes they were local thugs sent by police to intimidate her son. The family left town the next day to seek refuge in the capital.

A few days later the city exploded in rebellion. Armed rebels, calling themselves the Resistance Front, attacked the police station and took over City Hall.

The rebels, a rag-tag bunch of local gang leaders, went on a wild rampage. Police homes throughout the city were ransacked and torched. None were spared, including the Charriots' house and the family grocery store out front.

The Gonaives rebellion quickly spread. Police in other cities came under attack and the country fell into chaos. Before the month was up, Aristide resigned and left the country.

In June, Charriot returned to Gonaives to fix up their home and reopen her store. Her son stayed behind in Port-au-Prince, where he was reassigned to the presidential palace. She finished repainting last month.

The new paint job is now stained by the muddy water almost all the way up the walls.

Many less fortunate neighbors lost their homes completely. Crumpled remains of concrete and sheet metal roofing lie all around. The Charriots' next-door neighbor, Sonia Antoine, 35, lost her home and now sleeps on the roof of a pick-up submerged in the mud.

Her five young children, who range in age from 4 to 12, huddle in the back. The hair of her youngest children is tinged brown, one of the warning signs of severe malnourishment.

Many homes left standing are still flooded six days after the storm. Passers-by riding bicycles and mopeds on Rue Christophe wear surgical paper masks against the rising stench of human waste. With public sanitation services busy collecting and burying the dead in mass graves by the hundreds, no resources are available for street cleaning.

With so many victims, some bodies were overlooked. Down the street neighbors created a funeral pyre from wood and tires to burn the body of a small, unidentified girl after her body lay in the roadway for four days.

Many complain that the relief effort is failing to reach those most in need. Officials at CARE, one of the U.S-based humanitarian agencies with a large base in Gonaives, said Friday only 25 percent of the population had received any food.

Even that may be optimistic. On Rue Christophe, almost no one had received any assistance by week's end. Many residents said they didn't want to fight for hand-outs at poorly organized distribution points.

Relief officials also are concerned about conditions in the northwest region of the country, one of the most desolate and impoverished regions in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation.

Ironically, aid workers were in the midst of preparing a drought program for that region when Jeanne hit. This year's harvest was lost when crucial rains failed during the February planting season.

While Jeanne did not cause any major loss of life in the northwest, "there are definitely going to be large scale needs there as well," said Cecily Bryant, CARE's assistant director in Haiti.

With aid agencies already overwhelmed by the disaster in Gonaives, Bryant warned that hunger in the northwest could also provoke another wave of mass migration of boat people trying to reach Florida shores.

In Gonaives, residents are already complaining that Haiti's interim government is not doing enough to help them. Some of their criticism is directed at the country's transitional prime minister, Gerard Latortue, a native son of Gonaives who was installed after Aristide left. "He's forgotten his own people," said Kesner Simon, a law student on Rue Christophe who participated in the anti-Aristide movement.

Recalling how government forces tried to quell the city earlier in the year, schoolteacher Camilla Fevren, 44, quipped that Aristide had conjured up Jeanne's wrath as revenge for his downfall. "Aristide tried to destroy us, but he couldn't do it," Fevren said. "Jeanne completed the job for him."