“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.

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Two Who Typified the Many

After dinner on the first evening, we met with the man who would become, for me, the archetypal embodiment of the people and history of Haiti: Fr. Antoine Adrien. Antoine Adrian, CSSp, co-founder of Washington Office on Haiti, mentor to Aristide, and negotiator at the Governors' Island Accords. He became director of College St. Martial (Kolej Sen Masyel), the Spiritan elementary-secondary school in Port-au-Prince, after the 1990 elections. But, that evening, he was simply Pere Adrien and, yet, even at this first meeting, it was evident that this was someone extraordinary.

He had a quiet, calm presence—a soft voice that concealed strength. His intelligence, vitality, and determination belied his age—70—in fact, there was an ageless quality to his presence.   His words outlined, with a succinct clarity, all that had transpired since the coup. He was able to convey, in a manner that I have never seen paralleled, the terrible suffering endured by the people and the country. And, somehow he seemed to hold all of it in him as personal.

It is impossible to describe his personal magnetism—not the same that one experiences in the usual public figure but a humility that made him all the more compelling because there was no personal aggrandizement or agenda. He simply spoke the heart of the truth—and because of it he was irresistible.   He would be the one whom, trip after trip, I would seek out to weigh and measure the situation. There was integrity in him that I have not often found. When he spoke, I knew I could trust the words—an important asset in a situation so incredibly fluid.

That night, we sang, for the first time, a hymn that would fill my heart and mouth many times in the months and years ahead: “Little by little, we will get there.”

The next morning, we met with another wonderful man, a priest and scholar (his name is withheld because of the continued threat to his person), from the northern part of Haiti. He had been a college professor and administrator for more than two decades and he was a guiding light in the Catholic Church of Haiti’s attempt to improve the literacy rate—especially among the peasants.

The literacy program, Misyon Alfa, and his outspoken criticism of the political situation had made him powerful enemies. He had been in hiding (as many of those we spoke with were) since the coup. When he traveled to and from his home area, he did so in a circuitous manner since he was highly recognizable and would have been arrested.

One of the important areas of information that he offered had to do with the repression of young people, especially students. Knowing that we were going to embark on observation trips to the countryside, he advised us to watch the people closely—he indicated we would see fear. During the Duvalier years, he stated, there were certainly fear and misery but the situation now was a free for all. There was no indication where the violence and repression would occur. Even small things were used to harass the population—car lights, mirrors, arbitrary searches of vehicles and peoples’ persons, which both humiliate and intimidate.

In parting he offered our delegation an amazing and humbling bit of support in our determination to listen and report what is happening in Haiti: “The presence of someone near another one who is suffering is the presence of God. It is an encouragement.”

After the morning session, we adjourned to lunch and then the time came for us to go into the countryside to witness for ourselves. There is a Haitian proverb that sums up the reasoning for this and all the trips I would make in the future: Sa je pa we ke pa tounen. What the eye doesn’t see doesn’t move the heart.

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