Those with an Agenda: And the hits just keep on coming

After an afternoon of meetings with Necker Dessables and Fr. Freud Jean, who is with the National Commission for Truth and Justice and also works with the Bishops Conference, we came away with an incredible amount of facts and statistics, facts and statistics that would be reiterated with various examples throughout the week and all of which underscored the plight of the majority of the Haitian population.

In general what we learned could be categorized in several, not always succinct, sentences. Haiti is a country whose two hundred years of “democracy” have been punctuated by terror and tyranny but very little freedom. It has been ruled by one form of dictatorship after another—dictatorships that have been supported by the wealthy elite class because that form gives it free rein. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It supports (at that time) seven and a half million people—but not well since most food produced does not stay in Haiti but is sold by the wealthy landowners on the world market. The general population subsists on less than $300 a year, has no access to clean water, medical care, education or any of the other things that support a decent life. Most children never reach the age of five and those that do are malnourished, sick, and often unclothed.

After years of repression and political turmoil, after years of murders, beatings and torture, the disenfranchised rose up, and in an unprecedented moment of triumph, on December 16, 1990, elected Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest and liberation theologian, President of Haiti. Out of a field of 11 candidates, he received 67% of the vote.

The joy and hope were short lived. On September 30, 1991, General Raoul Cedras (trained at the School of the Americas) orchestrated a military coup (many in Haiti contended that the coup was supported and financed by the United States) and President Aristide was sent into exile. It was a devastating blow to the majority of the Haitian populace. But, one that they did not take with resignation. Unfortunately, even the smallest attempt to organize politically or socially or religiously is met with barbarous repression. Random shootings, unprovoked disappearances, gratuitous beatings—and torture and murder executed in manners that defy the imagination are all used to control the population through indiscriminate intimidation. And, yet, despite the real threat to life and living, the people work together to accomplish what little is possible.

During the few months prior to the arrival of our observation team, several international human rights organizations reported that the human rights abuses at this time were worse than the worst days of the Tontons Macoutes and the death squads of the Duvalier family. And, frankly, as the particulars of the methods of the repression were outlined to us in the various meetings, I was overwhelmed with the specifics and also the sheer number of military and paramilitary organizations that had the people at their collective and individual mercy.

In addition to the Haitian military and the police forces, there were the Zenglendo (bands of thieves that roam the countryside looting and murdering) FRAPH (which is an acronym wordplay on frappe—to whip—which formed in the fall of 1991—loosely organized , to begin with, but now was more heavily armed and coercing people to join, it was described as a pseudo-humanitarian, quasi-political organization whose mission was to garner power and control the populace for the organization’s own ends), and sections chiefs (sort of like country administrators—they were located in the countryside, which comprises most of the country, and served as a particularly powerful officer who can be described as sheriff, judge, jury, and enforcer all wrapped up in one).

At one juncture, we sat in a room where bullet holes haloed the light switch. No allusion was made to the fact, but that particular speaker said: “This is not a question of how many are killed. The important thing is that the law and the rights of the people have been negated. The main hope is the Haitian people. They are ready to struggle for their rights—no matter what. This is not a matter of thousands dying today as a headline—people will quietly die for years.”

This was a living reality shared by all who spoke to us that day and in the days and years that followed. There was no doubt that this was the experiential history of the majority of the Haitian people. I cannot imagine even drawing a breath, let alone living, in a place where my life and the lives of my family members would be considered an impedance to someone’s will to power, where that impedance can be eliminated with little thought and no recourse. I felt overwhelmed and I could not come to terms with the fact that the people speaking with us actually thought we could do something to help them.

Fr. Freud Jean

Relativity: Space-time as experience

Then, in one singular moment, the confusion, the collage of faces, the alphabet soup, all of that disappeared. Later in the evening, I attempted to recall, in my journal, the afternoon and that moment:

10/26/92          Later, at Episcopal Justice Group Meeting in PAP (abbreviation for Port-au-Prince)

“Plans change—times are gelatinous—we operate on H(aitian) T(ime) which means give or take an hour or so—all pretty amorphous—no problem, that seems to be the crux of every statement made to us so far. It is the one phrase that everyone here seems to know no matter what language is spoken—and there are plenty of languages to go around: Creole, French, English, and some Spanish. I speak Russian and German—not all that useful. I actually found myself responding in Italian this afternoon, and I don’t speak Italian. But, what we all manage to do, and with great proficiency, is sweat.

“The temperature is only five degrees higher than in South Florida but the humidity must ride at close to one hundred percent all the time. All the people we see, including us, look as if they should be in some old Bogart film, constantly mopping their brows. We sit in this meeting, listening.

“Two Haitians sit near us, huddled together waiting for a Creole translation. Both are victims of the Coup—one, a woman, in exile from her home in Gonaives, moves from house to house, displaced and in hiding—her husband in one place—her children, another. Everyone is willing to explain, give examples but the thing is unbelievably complicated. Chaos breeding more chaos. These people hope—and they hope with intensity if they hope in us—and it indicates how powerless they are if they hope in the minuscule power we have.

“I wore a scapular given to me to wear by a friend in Florida. I take it from around my neck and give it to the Lady-in-Hiding that I met at the meeting. She certainly needs it more than I do. Parting, we often say, Bon Courage. Here, it amounts to a blessing.”

All these years later, I now know that up until that moment, it had all been theory—theory and second hand information even though it was being told in the place where it was happening even as we spoke. But, with this woman, a woman who had a husband and a child just as I did, the experience became personal, and sympathy suddenly became empathy. The only way I could express that connection was to give her the scapular.

Four years later, on one of the trips where I had traveled alone to Haiti because it was too dangerous to take a delegation with me, Necker Dessables asked me to meet him down on the square for lunch. It was a rather strange request. Even though I now met with Necker every time I came to Haiti, it was always at his office as the director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Haitian Conference of Bishops.

I arrived at the restaurant and saw Necker seated toward the back. He was with another person, a woman. After I was seated and introductions were made, the woman reached inside her blouse and pulled out the scapular which hung around her neck. “Do you remember?” she softly asked me. It was one of the exceptional moments of my years in Haiti. She had survived. Her family, though still separated, had survived. And, she remembered me. I had never forgotten her, either.

She had become a particular personification of the suffering of Haiti. And, after all those years, Necker had brought us back together. It is impossible to express in words what that moment meant.

Then, about five years ago in an Honors class at the College, I retold this story. Honors classes are small and this one, Honors Knowledge Through the Ages, had just twelve students—one of whom was a young Haitian man. As I finished the story, I noticed he had a strange look on his face and I inquired about his reaction. Instead of answering, he asked me several questions. When I had replied, he said quietly: “That was my mother.” All those years and miles and the almost infinite unlikelihood of such a connection . . . and yet there it was—I was teaching the son of the woman who had first taught me.

See the source imagenoquestionleftbehind.blogspot.com  Scapular image

student

Information Overload: The “H” volume expands exponentially

That first afternoon was packed with people and associated information. But, for me, I would meet people who would become intimately connected to my life in the years ahead. Today, they were simply names that I fought to keep straight because I was desperate to do a good job at this, to honor the responsibility that I had so cavalierly assumed: Sr. Ann Weller, Sr. Ellen Flynn, Fr. Ron Voss, Fr. Antoine Adrien, George Werleigh, Josette Perard, Fr. Freud Jean, Necker Dessables, Fr. Jean-Yves Urfie, Colin Granderson, Evans Paul, Fr. Frantz Grandoit, Fr. Rene Soler, Jane Regan, Bobby Duval, Pere Salvetti, and a host of others whom I would later know by name, face and fortune.

To be honest, the major part of the afternoon was a collage of impressions. I tried to take down names and organizations and the salient points of the material presented but I ended up with pages of almost illegible and certainly indecipherable notes.

We attended meetings at a number of venues. The organizational names were presented as French titles or as acronyms of the French titles—which meant it was almost impossible to keep track of them. It is interesting to note that most organizations—from the large official ones to the small and unofficial are designated by acronyms. It doesn’t help.

My mindset is name—my mind rebels at acronyms, especially long, undifferentiated lists of them. That week we met with FENEH, I’OGITH, CODDHUS, FONDEM, CEPEDAV, and an alphabetical bundle of other organizations. It was difficult to tell which organizations were long-term and which, ephemeral, which were large über-structures and trans-country and which, clustered individuals and small. So, I did the best I could but, in reality, I was struck more by individuals than by organizations. Only later did the organizations become more recognizable to me—and only then because I knew the people.

I remember small rooms and large rooms, rooms with jalousie windows that reflected the searing light of the unfiltered day, rooms of concrete block and terrazzo floors furnished with wooden furniture that had surfaces softened and eaten by humidity. I remember blackboards and flip-charts filled with information that entered the sinkhole of my overwhelmed mind. I remember people who worked hard to encapsulate 200 years of history into half-hour segments and urgently sought a glimmer of understanding in our eyes. I remember jockeying for a seat close to the presenter in small rooms and hoping to ask a penetrating question that would get me noticed.  But, in reality, I connected to very few things.  I was just attempting to find my place in all of this. family

 

Finding Home: A place for finding hope

The Hospice St. Joseph, 33 Rue Acacia, located in the Christ Roi neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, was to be our home while in Haiti. And, it would be my base of operation in the years ahead. It is impossible to think of the time spent in Haiti without thinking of the HSJ as a sort of axis mundi. It was (I use past tense because on January 12, 2010, the floors pan-caked and the building ceased it previous existence) a three story building with a rounded façade on two of its sides. The building and large parking area and courtyard were surrounded by a high wall and reached through a double wooden gate off of Rue Acacia.

The first floor was partially open and served as a neighborhood clinic, pre-school, and food depot. The second floor had a chapel, a large dining room where we ate buffet style, several smaller rooms for sitting and discussions, and a couple of bedrooms.   The third floor housed the rest of the bedrooms—including several of those belonging to permanent residents and those provided for guests. A wraparound veranda connected most of the room entrances. Our rooms were on the third floor.

Each room, which slept two to four people, had its own toilet, sink, and shower—partitioned off with wooden, louvered, swinging bar-doors. But, water was severely limited and, on a number of trips, several of us shared a half-full 5-gallon bucket of water and a margarine container for dipping. The water was for our bathing and the toilet. We were careful with the precious commodity. It was certainly a re-education for someone who liked long, hot showers.

We went to our assigned rooms, dumped our baggage, and, after introductions to the full-time residents, met down in the courtyard to begin our first series of meetings and interviews. And, there, we met firsthand one of the reasons we were there. Outside the front door of the Hospice where we were to re-board the van, stood a mother with her little girl—three or four years old, at most. Her left foot and leg were horribly festered—a huge open wound running with pus. She had been burned in an accident with hot cooking oil. She must have been in terrible pain but she didn’t cry. Instead, she shivered slightly and partially hid her face in her mother’s skirt, shyly peeping out at the blan yo (foreigners) who were equally entranced by her. She was dressed in a crisp, clean yellow and white dress and her hair was carefully separated and contained by numerous bright yellow barrettes. A shy gaze briefly flickered with a smile when her mama bade her respond to an offered “Bon jour.”

The child belonged in a hospital emergency room. The problem was that she couldn’t just be taken to a hospital. Patients going to hospitals are expected to bring their own medicine, bandages, clean water, and, often times, candle stubs for light when the electricity is off—which is the case more often than not. All of it unspeakably expensive for the poor. Medical attention is often out of the question for most Haitians. This little girl’s mother had come to the Hospice in order to pick up a burn kit and other essentials before taking the child on to the hospital for treatment. Afterwards, they would come back to the Hospice to pick up the prescribed antibiotics and additional bandages. This was our first personal introduction to the poverty and suffering of Haiti.

On the Road: Willie Nelson and Jack Kerouac never imagined

 The next day, when we exited the airport and piled into the Hospice St. Joseph van, we were greeted by Matthieu. He and Domond would become the mainstays of transportation in the days, months, and years ahead. There is a cliché: Traffic was a nightmare. I always associated it with driving on an Interstate during a holiday weekend. In fact, that kind of driving is a dream compared to driving in Haiti.

For most of us, driving assumes roads and roads that are in pretty fair condition. Haiti lacks most areas of infrastructure that First World Countries take for granted—starting with paved highways. Even country roads in the United States are decently maintained.   In Haiti, the best road connects Port-au-Prince and Jacmel—at least it did until a recent hurricane wiped out the main bridge. Other highways, including the main one that runs the length of the country between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, are a series of massive potholes each one worse than the last.

Everyone drives at breakneck speed while attempting to swerve around the holes. That means traffic seldom stays in the lanes intended for it. Signals for variance are a cacophony of horns and semaphoric arm waving. The horns are so omnipresent that, in fact, they just blend into the general noise—almost like background conversations in a large room.

Vehicles of all descriptions and sizes clog the roads. Large farm-type trucks with tall slatted sides serve as long-range buses—where passengers stand, grasping longitudinally placed boards above their heads for stability; pick-up trucks that have undergone serious surgery and are painted in brilliant colors rush up and down streets in something approaching routes. These vehicles, called tap-taps, are the usual transportation of the cities. Each tap-tap has a name, usually referencing God or a saint, across the front and across the rear. Add to this mix private cars in various states of disrepair, flat bed carts (the size of pick-up truck beds) carried on two wheels that support huge loads of items such as bags of charcoal and pulled by a single man, and assorted chickens, goats, and large pigs in groups and singly and that is the scenic description of a normal street or road. This is the traffic we entered when we left the airport. And, we did not enter it slowly.

From the moment we had exited the plane and entered the van, we were in sensory overload—assailed by the noise, color, movement, heat, sweat, and smell.   The smell! It enveloped the body as thoroughly as the heat. The atmosphere was a soup of diesel vapors, body smells, gasoline and oil fumes, garbage stink, animal odors, and sewage stench. It assailed the nose and mouth—stuffing them as the uninvited vehicle of the necessary oxygen. The whole experience was physically stunning and, accompanied by the ricocheting van, thoroughly disorienting. Somehow or other in a sort of time dilation, we reached the Hospice St. Joseph.

taptap

From Door to Door: Oriented and disoriented

Baggage Claim! Baggage claim was a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy—Inferno section. Concrete block walls and concrete floors; flaking, fading paint; non-functioning air conditioning; non-functioning conveyor belts; polyglot; elbows, knees, breasts, and bottoms—all shoving and jostling for purchase and space; bags, sacks, crates, cartons, trunks, automobile bumpers and fenders, boom-boxes, backpacks, and coffins piled high and piling higher as baggage handlers fought to control the onslaught of arriving material in a non-mechanized setting; and, always and everywhere, the richly choreographed gavotte of chaos performed by the omnipresent and omnivorous skycaps—determined to accumulate and herd mounds of luggage whether the owners wished it or not; and the military—cold, vigilant, and scary—casting the same malignant spell that I had witnessed second-hand in black and white World War II movies where Nazi security moved through train stations and people were arrested or disappeared with or without cause. In this room, gathering my luggage, I first became acquainted with what the rabbit feels in the hungry days of winter.

Getting out of baggage claim was just as daunting. Everything had to be searched. The universal prayer in our group: “Please don’t let them take the medication and other items we brought in to help the people.” Confiscation for no reason is not unusual—oh, excuses are given but, in reality, they don’t always make sense nor can they be argued with. If police or military personnel see things they want or like—the items are gone. We were lucky. We left the airport and boarded the van from the Hospice St. Joseph with everything we brought on board in Miami.

The night before, in Miami, we had spent getting acquainted. There were six of us, finally. John Dear, a Jesuit theologian from Berkeley, California, who also sat on the national board of Pax Christi USA, was our leader. His gentle, soft-spoken manner in conjunction with a tremendous strength of vision still amazes me. He has a way of quietly picking his way through façades and coming up with the quick of any given situation. That clarity allows one to make good choices when such decisions are essential. John and the other two members who had arrived were also acquainted and had worked together in California. Gail, a wife, mother and catechist, came from Sacramento, and Gary was a business man from Oakland. The sixth member of the group would meet up with us the next day in Port-au-Prince. She had preceded us by a week. Her name, Mev Puleo, and she was a photo-journalist also from Oakland. The age range ran from Mev, in her late twenties, through John and Gail in their thirties, Beth in her early forties and Gary and I in our late forties, early fifties. We also covered a full spectrum of personality types.

Wilfrid, the Pax Christi Haiti Coordinator, had flown down from national headquarters in Erie, Pennsylvania, to give us an orientation. It was needed, at least in my case. I was virgin when it came to having information on Haiti. I had no idea who or what Aristide was. I knew nothing about Haitian history let alone the tragic events of the past few years. I had a vague memory of “Baby Doc” being flown out by the U.S. government to the Cote d’Azur with lots of money that he’d managed to acquire at the expense of the Haitian populace. But, in actuality, I was about as apolitical as they come and proud of the fact. Somewhere I’d decided that the “World Situation” was unconnected to me. I indulged in a particularly nasty form of elitism that refrains from dirtying its hands in hopeless situations—like politics. When I saw children suffering on television, I changed the channel or left the room. I couldn’t bear to be haunted (and I would be, in dreams) by watching something I couldn’t change, and I really didn’t think I could change things. I never understood that all I had to do to change “things” was allow myself to be changed. I understood all about physics and chain reactions, why hadn’t I ever made the connection with this?

So, that evening was spent in educating—who what when where how and again who—crash course in Haitian history and U.S. foreign policy. All this was done over pizza and soft drinks. There were also all the practicalities to be addressed—how to act, what not to eat and drink, et cetera. Most important, we spoke of protocol, politeness—the essential behavior necessary to guarantee that those risking their lives to talk to us would not be jeopardized by frivolous or unthinking behavior on our part. We ended with a consideration of the gospel reading of the Good Samaritan. Of course, I was saturated with information, but none of it was sorted out. I don’t remember feeling particularly worried about the confusion. Perhaps I knew it would all coalesce eventually, but probably I didn’t. In all likelihood, I didn’t have enough sense, at this juncture, to realize how ignorant and at risk I was.

first delegation

Landing: Reality vs imagination

That first afternoon in Haiti hit like a heat stroke. Heat stroke—Shock—shock—senses assailed and beaten senseless. I had never been in what many called a “Third World Country” and I had no idea what to expect. One friend told me later he had worried that I would spend the whole week in terror. I was not in terror. I was in shock. The airport itself was a disorienting experience. Let there be no mistake: I love adventure and I do not scare easily. It is a weakness of character but I thrive on pushing boundaries, exploring new possibilities—as long as extreme heights and small, enclosed spaces aren’t involved. So I was ready—kind of. The first anomaly of the journey happened in the air as the island came into view.

10/26              9:00 a.m.   As the pilot of a flight approaches the destination, he usually comes on the speaker system and announces weather conditions at the arrival city. But, in this case, I think we’re in trouble. The pilot of our American Airlines flight bound for Haiti just relayed that “the weather in Port-au-Prince is unavailable.” Does this mean that Haiti has no weather or that it’s a military secret? From the vantage point of 33,000 feet, it appears that there is weather down there—so I suppose . . .

It was as good an indicator as any of what we could expect in the following week.

The runway in Port-au-Prince is short. Landing there never changes and it is always exciting, especially in an airbus crammed full of people and every imaginable kind of merchandise brought for resale by merchants and black marketeers on the island. When the large plane hits the runway, the pilot slams the powerful jets into reverse. Everything flies toward the front of the plane. People’s heads snap forward and almost pass and re-swallow the prayers that have filled the cabin since the plane began its descent. Rosaries swing in wild arcs but remain adhered to the fervent fingers that pincer the precious beads. Exclamations of “Mesi Bon Dieu” and particles of the Hail Mary sprinkle the air and enthusiastic clapping breaks the sound barrier. It’s a big plane and a short runway and everyone knows it.

Once we survived landing, we deplaned down portable stairs, which I hadn’t seen in use since the late nineteen fifties, onto steaming tarmac. As we approached the terminal, we were greeted by a three piece ensemble. The trio, in colorful and slightly worn costumes, was playing on steel drums and singing songs of welcome. It was all very jolly. It was also the last time I saw this group. In all the subsequent trips in all the years that followed, never once did such a welcome recur. Perhaps it was an omen or perhaps it was an archetypal welcome to the great adventure and love of a lifetime—whatever it was, it was a one-time-only occurrence.

Exiting the steaming heat of daylight, we entered the terminal and were immediately ushered into lines for passport checks. Each passport was opened, stamped, and ceremoniously signed. The Magna Carta was not signed with greater flourish. The attendant’s pen scrolled, looped, re-traced, and embellished in a great calligraphic show. The resultant was a piece of art worthy of an illuminated manuscript and completely illegible. I later found out that many of the checkers in the passport lines were illiterate. Their singular claims to fame were their individual signatures. They could write their names. As a consequence each signature became as unique and important as the individual person to whom it was attendant. My passport sports 24 of these rare works. I refuse to discard my expired passports because of these signatures—each one recalls an individual; each one reminds me of why I made these trips.

At the end of the passport line, just before I turned left to walk to baggage claim, hung a mirror. It wasn’t large but it caught my eye. At the top, the glass was frosted and a saying was painted in black lettering: “Tomorrow belongs to Haiti.” From that trip onward, each time I entered the country, I looked at that mirror and hoped against hope that its words would prove true. It was a small quiet wish, expressed humbly, but also a sad commentary on the state of the world where a small poor people is trampled and is hardly noticed in the process.

haiti3