PORT-AU-PRINCE The earthquake that shattered Haiti has unleashed fears that child-eating spirits, mythological figures entrenched in Haitian culture, are prowling homeless camps in search of young prey.
The 'loup-garou,' which means 'wolf man,' is similar to werewolf legends in other parts of the world, but in Haitian folklore it is a person who is possessed by a spirit and can turn into a beast or even a dog, cat, chicken, snake or another animal to suck the blood of babies and young children.
Haitians fear loups-garous in the best of times and even more since a powerful earthquake wrecked the capital of Port-au-Prince two weeks ago, killing as many as 200,000 people and forcing hundreds of thousands more to sleep outside in vast camps or on the streets.
Some people accused of being loups-garous have apparently been lynched since the earthquake, including a man killed at the La Grotte camp for displaced people on a barely accessible hillside that looks down on Port-au-Prince.
"After the earthquake, the loup-garou fled from prison. He was bragging that he was in jail because he was caught eating children ... During the night he went into the tents and tried to take someone's child," said Michaelle Casseus, a camp resident.
In another camp, residents described beating a man almost to death after he tried to take a baby during the night.
Night-time patrols have been set up to deter the spirits, who are also called 'lougarou' in the Creole language.
"The loup-garou is profiting from the earthquake to eat the children," said Milot Bazelais, a civil servant who was left homeless by the quake and also works for a charity group to help neighborhood children.
He said he had heard that one patrol killed a spirit before she had time to change form.
Most of Haiti's 9 million people are Roman Catholics but many also practice voodoo, a religion with African roots.
The belief in loups-garous cuts across religious identity and is most strongly adhered to among Haiti's poor, which are the majority in the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere.
Sylvain Lafalaisse, Haiti's secretary of state for finance, says the fears are stronger in times of social dislocation.
"People talk about loups-garous to give a name to their fears, but it is child snatchers who snatch children, not evil spirits," said Lafalaisse.
Thousands of Haitian children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the earthquake, and the government and aid groups warn of a growing threat of child traffickers seizing young children for illegal adoptions.
Haiti's government says it has already buried 120,000 victims of the January 12 earthquake, and tens of thousands more are believed to have been buried by their families or are still in the rubble of wrecked buildings.
At a mass grave in Titayen just north of Port-au-Prince, mechanical diggers have churned personal possessions of the dead to the surface -- a student ID card, a child's pink sandal, a school satchel complete with school books and pencils and a Bible lay strewn across the enormous grave site on Monday.
Voodoo priests are objecting to mass burials, saying they do not respect the dignity of the dead.
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara)