Introduction: What’s the point

Almost twenty-five years ago, I made a decision.  With little thought of implications or repercussions, I volunteered to be a human rights observer in Haiti. The impact on my life of that decision was profound.  This blog will explore that time and that impact.

Haiti is both a temporal and an eternal experience.  Here I hope to capture that experience in words. Some of the material will be newly written; some will come from my journals; some will come from my articles and poetry; some will come from my dissertation, In-Country: Identification of Transformational Learning and Leadership in Human Right Observers.  Although I may not always cite the specific source, all of it stems from my memories of that time and place.  The perspectives and impressions are primarily mine.  At times, they may appear to be naïve or even incorrect but bear with me, give me a chance to tell you my story and come with me to Haiti.

“In my end is my beginning” Part 2

11/2/92           10:50 a.m.   We're home, but I'm still attempting to down-load material. I wish there had been time to write more when it was happening—but there simply wasn't. As it was, at night, we only got a couple of hours sleep—too much adrenalin pumping to rest.

In the doctor’s office, now—sitting in a paper smock. These are disposable, right? What a joke. Paper isn’t a minimal cost. How to describe the devastated landscape. Mountains stripped of hardwood trees—whole sides of mountains slid into huge rubble heaps, the insides exposed—a stark gray-white as though a giant knife had sliced open a loaf of stale and rotting bread. And the strange absence of birds—I saw four birds the whole time I was in Haiti (and five pigeons—at that point I was even happy to see pigeons)—and one of those birds ended up in my bedroom, flying in, bewildered in the lamp light. Sr. Ann told me that at one time Haiti was a harbor for wonderful birds—many never proceeded on the flyway to South America because they were so pleased with what they found in Haiti. But now there are no nesting places, no resting places—and the birds no longer come. And I remember the mornings full of the sounds of roosters and dogs, but eerily lacking the early joy of birds.

11/3/92          6:50 a.m.   I am in line waiting for the polls to open at 7 a.m. I will vote. I am thinking how much this would mean in Haiti. During the first election there, the army simply went in and sprayed the polls with bullets. The second election, a large number of U. N. observers came and the election proceeded without blood-letting—Aristide was elected. Seven months later a coup d’état forced their democratically elected president to flee. Gail and I met a peasant who had helped organize the voting out in the mountains. We talked to him in the small house where the balloting took place. Off to the side, sat the ballot box—lock broken, now. He still spoke of that time with a proud joy. Without exception, everyone we spoke with waited for the return of the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Whether or not the real Aristide is the man these people believe he is irrelevant. If he is not, he will simply have to become that man—because he has become an icon. He is the personification of their hope.

The startling thing about quiet revolution is the diversity of men and women that it breeds—We met all manner during our week in Haiti: activists full of political strategy and overviews; poets who suffered openly when they spoke; young men fresh from organizing workers in the field; people living committed lives as members of Catholic base communities; a nun who spoke out courageously before of group of religious with mixed loyalties; labor union visionaries; professors who meet with human rights task forces at night; a starving, pregnant woman standing on a rural bridge with two papayas to sell; women whose husbands had been “disappeared”; men from the deposed government who now lead secret lives. Is it possible to love a hundred different men and women at once—I think so. With so much courage and heart, it is impossible to turn away from any of them. One old French priest picked wildflowers for me as we slipped in out of secret meetings in almost inaccessible mountains where the roads were mostly imagination. To be so full of the hope for the future and yet so full of the present fragile joy seems to me to be the hallmark of these individuals. We can’t walk away from this situation, these lovely, suffering, yet hope-filled people. The intelligence, the sweetness, the commitment nail us—and condemn us if we refuse to respond. We all felt it—and we all made the same response—each of us carrying our own patron saint with us—Beth remembers an orphaned boy who asked her to be his family, Gail carries the face of a blue-eyed Haitian priest, and I—I recall the woman in hiding and the old French priest. I will continue to hold them within in the days ahead.

There is something about Haiti. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery and words don’t pry mystery loose. But, from the first moment I was there, I felt bound to it in some essential way. Later on in my trips, Fr. Freud Jean remarked to a gathering of delegates that I was Haitian inside. And, Fr. Antoine Adrian told a luncheon group at a Pax Christi USA National Assembly: “With Nancy, Haiti is a passion.” I’m not certain that I am all that different from others who went to Haiti. Haiti does something to a person—it’s like uncovering something lost in one’s self—something known but unknown. It’s a funny thing but I was changed—myself but more than self. One evening, I asked my friend, Father O., if he thought it was possible to fall in love with a hundred people and 7 million more by association. He just laughed and said, “Of course—you’ve been preparing for it your whole life.”   Now, I had to live it and live it with complete abandon. But, that sounds as if I had a choice. In truth, I did not because I had fallen in love, and this was only the beginning.

child

 

“In my end is my beginning”

One of our last official meetings took place on that Friday evening at the Hotel Montana (destroyed during the January 2010 earthquake). The Hotel Montana was a fashionable hostelry. It was situated halfway up a mountain side and commanded a panoramic view of Port-au-Prince and the bay beyond. It was above the smoke and the stench and the noise of everyday life and it was where the Organization of American States Civil Mission (observing team) was housed.

We arrived in the parking lot just as the quickly gone evening twilight descended. We stood in a circle and held hands. Father Ron asked if I’d lead us in prayer before we went inside. My first words were: “Oh God”—not necessarily expressed in a prayer-like voice. “A good beginning,” he smiled. So, starting with that, I continued: “Let us do this rightly even if it means we mess it up.” All of us finished with “Amen” and, then, walked toward the entrance to the hotel.

Since their arrival a number of months before, the Civil Mission had seldom left the hotel. Unfortunately, their vehicles had been stolen from the docks in Miami—so they had no official transportation. And, as their plane had been landing in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian military had fired on it. The delegation, which we found out was being paid $4,500 each per month for the work, was unable to conduct the interviews and observations. And, if members did leave the hotel, they were followed and threatened. People were aware of this and reluctant to report to them at all. So they were reliant on delegations such as ours to assist them in gaining information.

Nine of the eighteen person mission met with us that evening. Most of them were sincere in their efforts to accomplish the task—one or two were taking advantage of a nice sinecure. After the meeting, I actually chased one of these down to speak directly—my suspicions were confirmed that night and re-confirmed on several occasions afterwards. There are always a couple of rats in the grain.

OAS

The one person, in particular, that I came away with respect for was the Mission leader, Colin Granderson. In the years ahead, the OAS Civil Mission would become the UN-OAS Civil Mission. He remained a constant. His word was true and his pledge was his bond. He was an extraordinary personage—quiet, astute, and effectual—the best possible person for a nearly impossible assignment.

That last Sunday, November 1, 1992, we attended Mass at Sant Gerard (the patron saint of pregnancy) where Fr. Jean–Juste was in hiding. During the Mass, I was struck by the sight of the incense smoke, caught in the sunrays, as it made its way heavenwards—carrying with it the hopes and prayers of the Haitian people. And, I continued to recall the words that we had heard repeated over and over this week, words that had begun as a political motto during the presidential election but had become a rallying call of solidarity in the time since: Tet Ansemn (heads together—together we can accomplish it all). Afterwards, we left for the airport. And, then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.St Gerard interior

Diverse Approaches; One Goal

Another individual, Renaud Bernadin, Minister of Planning and External Cooperation, came to the Hospice to meet with us. His physical presence was that of a caged lion. He sat hunched forward, the power still obvious but his heart broken by the constraints of his circumstances. He echoed Evans Paul’s emphasis on the non-violent restoration of the democratically elected government. He, too, was in hiding. One statement from that meeting has remained in my mind—a poignant precis of that struggle.

His remark occurred when he tried to explain, in a small way, what life was like: “I’m living through this situation with pain in my heart. I’ve found solidarity with many others, but I also have much sadness. Because my life’s in danger, I live like a child—depending on others for food and shelter and getting around. Every time I meet with someone, that person’s a risk for me. Yet, I feel a solidarity with the Haitian people.”

He continued: “This solidarity makes some people accept death so that others may be saved. For example, there was a young girl with TB who received money for her medicine. She knew of two people in hiding who had no food to eat, so she gave them her medicine money for six months so they could eat! Her lungs split open and she died. Then, the two men in hiding had to leave the country. They tried to get asylum in the U.S. embassy but were refused. Beyond this kind of solidarity I find great hope—not a hope from heaven but a hope from how we work here on earth.” When I came back to the United States and began to give talks and interviews, this was one of the primary examples that I used as indicative of the determination and self-sacrificing love of the Haitian people.

We also met with representatives of the Ti l’Egliz (the little church—an outgrowth of liberation theology). The primary focus is to have the Catholic Church highly integrated in community life and to have the Church and its members live out of the basic Christian tenet of a preferential option for the poor. They and the priest who had accompanied them summarized that belief and dedication in this manner: “The problems of the people are our problems. The problems of injustice, security, and repression are our problems.” We had witnessed and I would continue to witness in the years ahead the transforming power of this commitment. It was a total integration of the true idea of Church into all aspects of life. The hierarchical idea so often associated with church was not evident here. Everybody was in it together.

Renaud Bernadin.jpg

Places and Faces: Compounding commitments

During those final two days in Port-au-Prince, we made a sort of pilgrimage to the other places and people who are representative of the repression of and the perseverance of the majority of the Haitian population. The church of Sant Jean Bosco, a burned out ruin, was an awful and, yet, inspirational experience. Located in the Port-au-Prince slum of La Saline, it was the church where Fr. Aristide had lived and ministered. One Sunday during one of his heavily attended masses, the military, armed with guns and machetes, had overrun the church.   They slaughtered the people as they knelt in prayer. Afterwards the church was put to the torch.

What remains of the building is chained off and barricaded, but we went up to the old wrought iron gate and peered in. It defies all reason and goodness that people could be martyred in the very spot where sanctuary should be guaranteed. Stark and black—worked into the wrought iron—was the poignant phrase of Sant Jean Bosco: “Give me souls, you take the rest.” The words remained. The military may have taken the bodies but the souls remain as a part of the bravery and determination and faith of the Haitian people. In this case, the dead have added strength to the democratic cause. Clasping the gates, we said a prayer and then sang a song associated with Aristide:

Aproche, vini antoure mouin; (Come here, come to me;)

Aproche, vini pou-m bann Lavi. (Come here, come so I can give you life.)

We also went to the orphanage, la famni se lavi, founded by Aristide prior to his becoming President of Haiti.  The orphanage was designed to take in the male street children. It was a meager set up but far superior to the life the boys had been forced to live on the streets. But, of course, it had been targeted by the military and on election night. As Aristide and his supporters saw hope of a new life for Haitians, four of the orphanage residents, teenagers, were murdered by the military. The June before we visited, the de facto government burnt down the orphanage—five more boys died in the fire. The remaining boys still live in the ruined building and courtyard and spread their meager belongings among the debris and wreckage. Heartbreaking.

In addition to Fr. Jean-Juste, we met with Evans Paul—the mayor of Port-au-Prince—who was young, intelligent, energetic, committed to his city and his country . . . and, as with so many, in hiding. Every subsequent trip I made to Haiti, I visited with him and had him tape a message to the Haitian population in the United States, in particular that portion living in South Florida. Each time I returned to the States, I had a standing appointment with several of the Haitian radio stations, to come by with the tape so that it could be played over the air.   Then, I would be interviewed for a live up-date on conditions in their beloved homeland.

On several of the trips, Mayor Paul would ask me and, if I had brought a delegation with me, the delegation to go out and check on particular areas or institutions in the city. Sometimes what we had to report back was almost too much to bear—as it was with the conditions in the city run old people’s home.

Mayor Paul had formed an organization called FONDEM which was dedicated to the education of the populace and support of organizations designed to return Haiti to a democracy. When the arrangements were made for a visit, he was never referred to by name—I was always told that “Our Friend” would meet me at such and such a time. The place of meeting was seldom the same. Although he was surrounded by security, the truth was that he was never really safe. Meeting with people in secret became SOP for me in my future observing trips—just as it was for most of those who were engaged in human rights observing or related activities.Sant Jean Boscoorphanageorphanage1orphanage2Evans Paul

Those We Met

12 Noon   Back in Port-au-Prince and the whole group is now at Sans Fils—where Gail and I had visited earlier in the week. The others have gone inside—I can't because I'll just spread more germs since I’ve managed to pick up a upper respiratory infection somewhere along the line. So I'm in a small spot of shade in the courtyard. Sweating has become my middle name.

We had a meeting with a priest in hiding, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, this morning. (Later, when I began to meet with him, trip after trip, I would simply call him Gerry—as did all his friends.) The determination of the clergy here is unbelievable. He sent a message back from his hiding place—“We will make it—There is no other way.”   In a letter that he had us hand deliver, back in the States, to my friend, Father O, he wrote: “I’m in good shape. I’m in hiding. It is true my name is on death lists, and I have received death threats. But I have great hope that I will make it. In case I don’t, we will see each other someday where God is.”

The courage, the tenacity with which these priests persist in fighting for the rights of the people is amazing. They hide, they are beaten, they are jailed, they die—but they persist. I don’t think the de facto government can possibly understand; if it did, it would give up now. The resistance is so deep, so ingrained, so much a matter of being that this illegal regime will simply never be anything but a superficial association—the people will never accept it. And, their priests will support them in this and give the structure and strength they are unable to provide for themselves. Gail and I are both moved by the open handed acceptance of these men. They share their beds, their food (meager, in most cases) in a wonderful camaraderie that accepts you not because they know you, but because they know what you’re about and why you’re here. Afterwards they do it because they love you. There don’t seem to be any intermediate stages. As one man said, “To say is to be.” I have a small bunch of flowers pressed into my journal pages. Mon Pere (Pierre Salvetti) an older French priest picked them for me in the mountains above the Artibonite. He and the driver, Sylveste, had taken us there to meet and talk with the people—even a voodoo priest in his sanctuary (of course, by that time, Gail and I had both used the last of our film, so I guess people will just have to take our word for it). We saw the voting venues and spoke with those who had been poll workers. Interviewed three women we met on the road. Listened to a small group of men working fields, fields held by absentee landowners, fields that would provide food for the world market but not for these men. In every interview that day, one thing was incredibly obvious: Even in this remote area where eroded mountains and rivers full of that erosion isolated people into small settlements, the populace was dedicated to return of democracy, symbolized at this time by the return of their elected president, Aristide. Although this dedication came at a terrible price—disappearances, murders, tortures, dispossession, rape, and all types of repression, these people were determined. It was not an uninformed decision. They knew what it had cost and would continue to cost them.gerard jean-juste

In the Country

10/30/92          9:10 p.m.   Verrettes   Last night we changed residence. We moved from the rectory to the convent across the way. Before we left for the evening, Fr. Gilles Dan-Roc and Frantz told us about a young man/boy of twenty who had been out here on the square playing dominoes in front of the convent on October 11th at 9 p.m. The military came by and insisted that the boy was breaking the arbitrary and unofficial curfew (time and enforcement up to whomever wants to use it for perverse intentions). They broke the young man's arm as punishment. This morning, lying here in bed at the convent talking to Gail, I looked up (I had moved from the head to the foot of my bed last night because of air circulation). Up on the wall, over my bed, hung a crucifix. The arm of the Christ was broken.

In the morning, we had attended a Mass said by Pere Salvetti where he anointed us with oil. Gail and I mused it was as if we had been re-baptized and re-confirmed on this trip to Verrettes. Afterwards we went up into the mountains. On our way, we had forded the Artibonite River—not easy with the swift water and the bed full of boulders. As we made it to the other side, I saw a little girl—maybe five or six years old—brushing her teeth with river water. It was an act of futility—the water was as thick and sable brown as chocolate mousse. The water’s color came from the all the top soil that is eroded into the feeding streams. Haiti’s mountains have been denuded—trees cut down and harvested to produce charcoal. As a consequence, the terrain is gouged out in long, devastating gorges and the remaining land is nutrient poor.

As we were making our way up the mountain (the road was hardly a road, more of a rough, rock-strewn path), Pere Salvetti pointed to a spot where a vehicle recently had gone over the side. All passengers had been killed. The drop off all along the road was sheer and there was no foliage to break the descent. Once a vehicle went over, it didn’t stop until it reached the bottom. Imagine our shattering surprise when, once we returned to Port-au-Prince, we were informed that the lug-nuts on our vehicle had been loosened and only through a fluke or probably the grace of God the wheels had not come off in the mountains and all of us killed in a similar accident. It was speculated that the Macoutes member who lived behind the rectory in Verrettes may have been responsible for the sabotage.

That day we also visited the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer located at Descapelles—near Verrettes. The hospital is located in buildings and grounds once owned by the United Fruit Company. It is an extraordinary institution established by Dr. Larimer and Gwen Mellon. They had read about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa and established a correspondence with him. Inspired by his work, Larimer Mellon attended medical school and Gwen Mellon became a medical technician. They endowed and opened the hospital in the area of Haiti most cut off from medical services. We toured the facilities and were amazed at what was being provided for the poorest of the poor. But, it is charity of the right type. Individuals are charged for the services—the equivalent of one day’s wages. In that way, those who are treated do not feel demeaned. As we approached the buildings, we saw a line of people waiting to be seen. They were protected from the sun by majestic hardwoods—hardwoods that spread large umbrella branches as shade and whose leaves moved, generous fans, in the mountain breeze. This was the only place that we ever saw the magnificent hardwoods that had originally covered Haiti.

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Verrettes. Outside the little houses and along the road, little coal oil lanterns, each about the size of a regular vegetable can and containing a wick, were being lit. Men, with roosters under their arms, were heading down the road. Cock fights would provide the evening’s entertainment. I understood but I was also repelled. During the daytime the usual pastime is dominoes. Score in this game is kept by attaching pincher-type clothes pins to the jaw and chin areas. It makes for some really strange looking individuals.

pere salvettiPD_0034women of verrettes

 

The Road to Verrettes

Around 1:30 p.m. Frantz, the Haitian priest, and Pat Labuda (a woman from the States who comes here regularly and our translator for this trip to the country) picked us up, at the Hospice, in an all-terrain vehicle and we were on our way to Verrettes. The main highway is a circus of crazy driving, avoiding pot holes (the whole infrastructure, here, is collapsing) and various vehicles (all sizes, shapes, colors, crammed with people and produce—no vehicle so full that it can’t hold one more—and the wild and strange tap-taps are indescribable).

Three-quarters of the way to Sant Marc, we took a side-road and went to the deserted beach located near a closed down Club Med. Frantz, Pat, Arsylvie (a nun from Venezuela), Gail, and I changed into bathing suits and swam for an hour in the sea. It was a superb treat and felt just a bit decadent.

Then, on the road again. At Sant Marc we came to our first army roadblock—a little scary. We were taken for tourists who had been swimming. Frantz had strategically draped a wet towel over the dashboard. That coupled with the dripping hair and the back end of the Rover full of backpacks evidently was convincing.

The road from Sant Marc to Verrettes defies description. To say it was dirt is to laugh. It was like driving up a mountain creek bed often with the creek cohabiting. After dark it became treacherous as we encountered huge ditches flooded with mud and water—with no means to judge the depth of the water or the tenacity of the mud. Somehow we made it though, always remembering to clap and shout “Bravo” for Frantz’s extraordinary driving acumen. We arrived at the rectory around 7 p.m. It was pitch black and cloudy.

On the trip, Frantz had told us of his close calls with the army. Last night, I dreamed we were with him as he was being pursued. In my dream I was afraid. I guess it was expressing my sublimated fear—fear that I had probably not allowed myself to feel while awake. I have had better night’s sleeps; I have had much better beds than a 2-foot wide cot; but, I have never been so thankful for just having a bed—the same with the moldy, spider-infested bathroom facilities. The rectory is ancient, huge, and austere—high ceilings, peeling walls, almost no furniture, the feeling of patchwork, everything in semi-disrepair. Solar batteries sit charging on the floors of the upstairs veranda. Last night, in the shower, the dust turned to mud and drained off of me. But, the experience did not.

The Women

10/28/92           6:30 a.m.   Verrettes. Now, after breakfast—I am not feeling so great. I am tired and have a bit of stomach dis-ease and dizziness. I've dug out the "Gummi Dolphins" I bought in the Miami airport. Perhaps I need a sugar-fix. In any event, Frantz Grandoit, the priest who drove us here to Verrettes, yesterday, and whose rectory we are staying at and whose room I was given, came in and chased down the little bird and released it through the window. Then, we affixed the shutters—no more birds that night.

Earlier in the evening, when I first entered Frantz’s room, I got this tremendous feeling of the presence of Teilhard de Chardin. Really strange. Trying to rationalize—maybe because three of the priests here are Frenchmen and Frantz teaches philosophy at the university and the room is lined with books and the room is rather Spartan. (Donkey braying now in the background).

Anyway, back to the Mass at the Hospice, yesterday, the first hymn was one based on Isaiah 61—one of my all-time favorites. The day was the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. Fr. Ron indicated Gail and I were being sent forth and he prayed for our safety. We made it here over unbelievable roads and through army check-points, so it must have worked.

After Mass, we went to Sans Fils Hospital located in Port-au-Prince. When we entered one of the large wards, the women sang songs of welcome for us—what a contrast, those sweet songs given to us from those dear ailing women. Then, Gail and I gave body rubs to the women in this jammed full ward of sick and dying. One appeared to be dead already—eyes rolled-up, no sign of breathing.

I got to use all sixteen words of my French—“C’est bon?” “Bon.” “Oui.” And, in a patchwork of sign-language and fractured French, I explained that I used to play games with the toes of my “petit bebe” when I bathed her. Then, I proceeded to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market” complete with “WEE WEE WEE all the way home” with their toes as I massaged their feet. Many smiled or chuckled. Some of the women we rubbed were horribly wasted (in every sense of the word). Hip bones protruding, breasts withered, skin broken out, subcutaneous lumps—all manner of illness—all bunched together. A strange consequence of those massages—the rubber gloves we wore and the lotion we used and the bodies we massaged combined to burn our fingers and temporarily erase our fingerprints. Symbolic meanings traced their ways through my thoughts.

All of this confused memory fragments striving to make whole cloth.

Port-au-Prince to Verrettes: Place and day blur

That evening, after dinner, Gail and I packed to leave for Verrettes the next day. Then, we moved out onto the balcony to socialize with the other people in residence. The individuals who ran Hospice St. Joseph, Sister Ann Weller, CSJ, and Fr. Ron Voss, are both from Indiana. There was a whole contingency of people from Indiana visiting here, too. They were with the Parish-Twinning Program. Also, there was retired priest, Fr. Joe Beckman, from Cincinnati here (he lives at the seminary in Cincy). Amazing to come all this way and meet up with home—or, at least, the area where I grew up and whose values I still share.

But, tomorrow, we would go to Verrettes (located in the Artibonite Valley) with a priest named Frantz Grandoit, O.P. We were told we would be put on a bus Thursday to wend our way back to Port-au-Prince on our own. My thought at that time, recorded in my journal: Tomorrow, we go to Verrettes—someone else’s home, someone else’s security—located in the most fertile valley in Haiti, the Artibonite, sequestered on the east and west by mountains, only approachable from the north or south ends of the island. So tomorrow we head north, then west, then south into the heart of the country. This is some adventure.

The next few days became a collage—even recalling them in my journal they came back to me as associated memories rather than chronically arranged happenings.

10/28/92          5:30 a.m.   Yesterday began and ended in a dream. Gail and I got up about five—after waking, as usual, with the chickens and dogs at four-fifteen. There was a heavy mist lying over Port-au-Prince, between the mountains, left over from the terrific rain the night before.

After breakfast with the staff and the gang from Indiana, Ron (Father Ron Voss, the priest from Muncie, Indiana, who runs the Hospice) had Mass—Creole and English. Gail read the First Reading and I did the Responsorial and the Gospel—first time I’ve ever read the Gospel at Mass. George came in during Mass. Afterwards, we had a short conference—found out we would be in Verrettes until Friday instead of Thursday. After George left, we went to Sans Fils with Sister Agatha.

Sans Fils is Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s home for the destitute and dying. As we drove through the entrance, we encountered a dead body lying at the gate. The man had been dropped there by the police. According to Sr. Agatha, this is not an uncommon occurrence. The police know the nuns will take care of burying the body and, consequently, dump bodies here. Now the body was lying there on the concrete and being bothered by flies while a couple of feet away the market was being set up.

Everywhere and always there is the smell of burning—charcoal, the garbage heaps—city and countryside alike, always the burning—and dogs that all look descended from the same dog. But very few birds—because the forests are gone. Last night in Verrettes, as I was getting ready to go to bed, something flew into the room. At first I thought it was a bat; but, when it fluttered to a resting spot, I saw it was a small bird. As I said, all of it connected—not by the clock but by an ancient instinct that understands the significance of patterns.

Empathy as Language

10/27/92          9:10 p.m.   Today, the group broke into two subgroups: One, with John, Beth, Gary, and Mev, is leaving for Cap Haitien, today; the other, with Gail and me, will be traveling to Verrettes (in the Artibonite Valley), tomorrow. After the others left, Gail and I spent the day at the Hospice. But, we weren’t inactive: We had an intensive afternoon of interviews. Gail took notes while I questioned. Matthieu and, later, George translated.

The first individual was Patrick Numas, the General Secretary of OGITH, Organisation Generale Independante Des Travilleiurs, Trailleuses D’Haiti and CODDHUS, the committee that deals with specific human rights abuse of the workers. His documentation was primarily concerned with the Haitian workers—the lack of work, the miserable wages and working conditions, and the repression and intimidation of those who were able to secure working positions.   He provided multiple pages of documented cases—in French.

And, he spoke French. I was frustrated by the language barrier. But, we developed a technique around it. Even though a translator relayed our parts of the conversation, we never once looked at the translator. We kept our eyes on each other. That allowed us to see facial reactions and body language—that subtle element of communication so important for true understanding of intent. From that afternoon on and during the years to come, Patrick and I would remain in contact—still in need of a translator but no longer bound by language.

The next interviewees were two men from MGL, a youth movement centered in Labadie—a place the cruise ships visit—when the local (paramilitary and repressive authorities guarantee safety), a place that wears the façade of lovely “native village” featuring “native crafts.” We are witness to the ugly reality festering beneath the tourist brochure. I am humbled and frightened and strangely energized by these testimonies and stories and with the hopeful confidence, the extreme trust these people put in our determination to put out the word of what they are suffering and what is really happening here. I am awed by the responsibility this places on us. They believe we will speak for them—they spend their time—they risk their lives talking to us. We must honor this trust. And, it scares me that we might fail them for one reason or another.

The interview started after lunch. The two young men, two translators, Gail and I arranged six chairs in the small chapel. We sat in a relaxed circle—the two young men facing Gail and me at a bit of an angle. The windows provided excellent natural lighting so we didn’t bother with the overhead light.

We began with introductions. The young men spoke softly, almost shyly, heads slightly inclined. As the interview continued, I found myself moving forward in my chair—more and more until my rear was resting on the edge of the chair and my arms and sometimes my elbows rested on my knees, my head craned forward toward the speaker. Gail took notes and I presented the questions.

As the afternoon progressed, I listened less and less to the translators and found myself relying more and more on a strange rapport. I did not pale Kreyol at that time—in fact, I don’t speak it all that well now. But, that afternoon, I understood Creole. One of the young men, Jean (not his real name), mirrored my posture. The afternoon light dimmed; time passed unnoticed; I listened to Jean. All else ceased to register in my consciousness—only Jean repeating the horrific stories of his own firsthand experiences and of the experiences of the peasants with whom he and his group work—the beatings, the rapes, the forced rapes between family members, the homes burnt to the ground, the property and money extorted to prevent beatings, the imprisonment and murders, and, finally the forced displacement, separation from the land which is the only source of livelihood. Of those left alive, many are left without home and income.

At some point, during the afternoon, I realized that the exchange between us had transcended language—we simply understood each other. It was like a strange gift of tongues.

Later, I asked Gail if she had understood what was being said—especially since she was charged with taking notes on a conversation that was ignoring, to a large extent, the translators, and she indicated that she had experienced snatches of the same understanding. It was as though everything disappeared but the empathy of the correspondents. When the spell finally broke, we realized the light in the room was now the dimness of twilight and the afternoon was gone. And, when the two young men left the Hospice, I felt as if part of me was leaving with them—not metaphorically, but truly. It would not be the last time this happened. Before my sojourn as a human rights observer was over, Haiti and its people had become a part of my being and my soul. I could never, again, view its suffering or its history as something separate from my own life.

numas