Haiti: Rape, murder and voodoo on the Island of the Damned
14th January 2010
For tourists on cruise ships plying the Caribbean, Haiti appears a beguiling, mysterious place.
The first independent black state, set up 200 years ago after a rebellion by African slaves against colonial France, the mountainous island is home to exotic birds and animals and mist-shrouded tropical forests.
But it is no paradise for the country's nine million people. Indeed, the devastating earthquake now bringing death and heartbreak is the latest in a long line of tragedies to befall a place dubbed the Island of the Damned.
Picture: A houngan, or voodoo priest, lights a pipe in his temple in Haiti
Those with the misfortune to be born in Haiti - part of the island of Hispaniola, shared with the Dominican Republic - have long endured a living hell.
With one in ten under-40s infected with HIV, and millions living in squalor and destitution, thousands try to flee each year to the U.S. by hanging on to anything that will float.
While hurricanes, floods and earthquakes have all devastated the landscape over the years, the biggest threat has come from humans.
Successive dictators have raped, murdered and even reputedly eaten their enemies.
Described by one commentator as an 'international crime scene' rather than a country, Haiti became infamous around the world during the reign of Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, a former doctor who murdered 100,000 people and formed a private band of killers called the Tonton Macoutes.
Wearing their trademark mirrored sunglasses and designer T-shirts, these murderers and cannibals were named after a terrifying bogeyman from Haitian mythology, who carried off naughty children into slavery.
The Tonton Macoutes cut out the hearts, eyes and lungs of opponents with machetes, while Papa Doc, who stole almost a billion pounds in foreign aid, insisted that every television and radio programme had to be entirely in praise of his rule.
In power from 1957, Papa Doc made voodoo the country's official religion and claimed to be Baron Samedi, the religion's spirit of death.
He often wore a top hat and tails while demanding the skulls of his dead victims were brought to his palace in Port-au-Prince.
He collected blood from prisoners who had been tortured and killed and sold it for $22 a pint to U.S. health groups.
He once ordered the death of all black dogs in the country after a political enemy was rumoured to have transformed into one.
Bloody: Haitian women participate in a voodoo ritual which includes animal sacrifice
Even after Papa Doc died in 1971 there was no respite for Haiti. Baby Doc, his deranged son, took over and continued the terror.
His wife spent £10,000 a month on flowers and always wore expensive furs indoors - with officials facing death if they forgot to turn on the air-conditioning.
After 15 more years of bloodshed and oppression, the people finally rose up in 1986 and Baby Doc was forced to flee into exile in France.
But the torment did not end with the Duvaliers. After the country's first free elections in 1991, the new president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was forced to flee after a coup by corrupt military figures keen to control lucrative cocaine smuggling routes.
Sinister: A skull and crucifix used during a voodoo service in Haiti in the 1970s
In 1993, I watched as the might of the U.S. military was repelled by mobs armed with stones and clubs when American troops arrived to restore order.
Papa and Baby Doc were long gone, but gangs of Tonton Macoutes roamed the streets in pick-up trucks, randomly shooting anyone they passed.
Aristide returned to power in 1994 with a bigger U.S. force - only to flee again after threats that he would be hacked to death and eaten.
Since then, despite the presence of an ineffective UN peacekeeping force, gangs have continued to wreak havoc and murder throughout a country where new graves are guarded to prevent bodies being stolen for voodoo rituals.
The most infamous of these killers is the Cannibal Gang, a group of sadists once led by a former prisoner with political aspirations, who was himself shot in the eyes and had his heart cut out in 2004.
His gang lives on, murdering innocent people and allegedly eating their organs.
As the world reacted with pledges of help for the latest traumatised victims of the Island of the Damned, rescuers continued their desperate search for bodies and relatives waited for news.
For the people of Haiti, though, hope has always been a rare commodity.