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SOME NATIVES RETURNING TO LIFE THEY LEFT

SHARE SOME NATIVES RETURNING TO LIFE THEY LEFT

Esta Compas risked her life and that of her 16-month-old daughter to escape Haiti. But she chose to take a U.S. Coast Guard cutter back to a nation that has grown more desperate since she left.

Enduring the police informers and thugs who mocked the returning boat people as "tourists," Compas shambled through the port gates of the Haitian capital, her baby on one hip and a bag of her possessions on the other.She was one of 400 Haitians repatriated Tuesday from a dusty, crowded tent camp in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, home to 15,000 Haitian boat people.

U.S. officials said another 342 refugees were heading home Wednesday from the camp, where hundreds of boat people rioted Saturday and 120 tried to swim to Communist Cuban soil in desperation.

Like many refugees, Compas fled deepening misery - but found her "safe haven" at Guantanamo Bay would not improve her fate.

She had hoped to get to U.S. shores, then find work to support her family; she had left five of her six children in Haiti. But President Clinton, seeking to flatten a wave of Haitian boat people, ordered all intercepted refugees shunted to third-nation havens.

Although several human rights groups have criticized conditions at Guantanamo Bay, about a dozen returning refugees interviewed Tuesday all said the food was OK and that they were generally treated with respect.

"I returned because I was wasting time," said Compas, 35, from the Haitian island of La Gonave.

"I had my kids; they didn't have any father. I wanted to help them. I could not help them. So I returned," she said, cradling her rheumy-eyed daughter, Sela.

Her story is typical, says Linda Polman, the Dutch author of "Boat People," a recently published book on the flow of Haitians from their military-dominated nation. Despite Washington's longtime desire to pigeonhole the boat people as mostly economic refugees with a small minority of political refugees, Polman argues they are both.

"They're fleeing poverty, they're fleeing hunger, but that suffering is due to the political system. In that way, they are all political refugees, but not in the way we understand the term," Polman said in an interview.

Ever since the army ousted elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and the United Nations imposed an oil and trade embargo to press for his return, the Haitian economy has been in shambles.

More than 21,000 Haitians took to the seas from mid-June to mid-July, a surge begun after Clinton briefly liberalized U.S. refugee policy. The flow fell dramatically after the new policy of sending them to third countries.

Not one refugee has been intercepted by the Coast Guard in the past 10 days, U.S. officials said.

Compas had to walk from the wharf to the roadway; the usual minivans by the Haitian Red Cross had no gasoline because of the fuel shortage.

Compas' economic problems were immediate. Although hungry, she dodged aggressive vendors hawking bread, soda, juices, menthol cigarettes.