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

 

Suffer the Little Children

That first afternoon, we exited the vehicles and entered the muddy pathways and narrow thoroughfares of this sad city. We were immediately surrounded by children—smiling children—who reached out and gently grasped our hands and our arms and accompanied us down the horrific alleyways of sewage and mud and garbage and little tin shacks constructed of cast-off materials.

And, yet there was a determined pride. The population might be relegated to the burning dumps and sewage sloughs of the city, but there was an effort to bring beauty and dignity to the place. Many of the tiny shacks were painted in a multitude of bright colors—probably leftover paint from a project somewhere else in the city. Some of the homes sported little gardens marked off with rocks or tin cans and boasting a few zinnias.

In front of one house, poised on a grid of sewage, there was a small enamel table, about 3 x 1 ½ feet. On it was a tin basin. In the basin sat a small child who was being assiduously washed by his mother. I was moved by this attempt to remain human in a place that did not encourage it. The whole was an overwhelming experience. I had never dreamed or envisioned such poverty and misery or such humanity amidst it. Early the next morning, I revisited itin my journal.

10/27/92          7:00 a.m.   No traffic noise—people noise—wildlife. Went to sleep to masses of barking dogs—awakened at 4:15 a.m. by a rooster crowing what sounded like “Pennsylvania”—followed by half echoes and murmuring reverberations of cocks all over the city. The heat and humidity are beyond belief. Everyone seems drenched—including me—from the crack of dawn on. I’ve never enjoyed a cold shower as much as the one last night. The room, last night, was haunted by the palmetto bug from hell. But, who cared especially after what we saw yesterday.

Down a filthy gangway—the ground a marshy gray muck, full of human refuse, the street ran with it—in about a 2 ft. wide clearance sat four small children—two of whom were about 18 months old, one, maybe 2 ½ years, and one more about 3 ½ or 4. The oldest one was feeding the youngest two an oatmeal type gruel. They were naked (a lot of that, here)—only the oldest had on a little dress. They sat in the filth. The youngest two couldn’t walk.   Dr. Richard Ludwig, a dentist who volunteers six months of his year to come from United States Midwest and work in Haiti and who was one of our guides in the area, thought maybe the little ones had polio. But, he expressed some hope because he had been able to get them an appointment at a clinic for November 6th. Another example of what Sister Ann explained to us earlier in the day about most hospitals here being rudimentary. If a patient checks in, he is expected to bring his own drugs and treatment kit with him. That can present a real problem especially for the poor. A fact we had witnessed when Sister gave the mother of the little girl the materials to clean out the necrotic tissue so that she could take the child to the hospital for treatment.

The Thousand Word Problem: The responsible use of a camera

As late afternoon approached and our saturation point was reached, we were taken out into the streets, to the people who live in Port-au-Prince, and, in particular, to one huge slum that occupies a major portion of the downtown area. It is called Cite Soleil.
Cite Soleil. City of the Sun. City within a city. Home to half a million poor within the capital of Port-au-Prince. It sits on the tidal mudflats of the polluted bay. The houses are four by six feet and made of scrap metal, plywood, and anything usable. The streets run with raw sewage and pigs forage among the heaps of garbage. I remember seeing a child, maybe three years old, squatting and defecating on one such wet and rotting pile as a huge black pig nosed its way through the debris at her feet.

My memories twist together. Was that the first trip or the third? No, the third, and the slum was called La Banan and located in Cap Haitien (obviously there is no shortage of poor or ghastly places to encamp them)—the same day we saw the horribly sick woman lying within the doorway on the mud-slimed, dirt floor of one of these houses. It was partially flooded from the heavy rains the day before; she gazed up at us, unmoving, as we stopped the vehicle and looked in. Take a picture of this—show the world what is happening here, what people are being reduced to. Don’t take a picture of this—there are multitudes of such pictures circulating and what difference will one more make—and it will steal the last thing she has, her privacy. I do not take the picture.

In fact I now find I can no longer take pictures of anyone or anything unless I am asked to take one to document a human rights abuse case. At one point, I brought back a picture of a man in a coffin, a man with half his head missing. That particular picture has been circulated everywhere and, consequently, shows up regularly on network television, in newspapers. I want to vomit every time I see it.

I have broken three cameras on these trips and messed up the loading mechanism on a fourth. I have consistently fouled up lighting and exposures—one time producing negatives so dense that processing the pictures bordered on the impossible. I no longer think it is bad luck or lack of intelligence. I recognize self-subversion when I see it. I can no longer bear the burden of the camera.

lady in mudpigs

 

Sleight of Hand: Now we see; now we don’t–or did we?

Another unnerving statement, made that afternoon, regarded a possible United States military intervention. One high ranking human rights organization leader stated: “The American presence is continual with the Haitian army—so a U.S. intervention is unlikely because the U.S. is already here.” I came from a moderately conservative background and my father was a retired military officer. I was not predisposed to believe statements of this type. I suspicioned that paranoia strikes deep in situations of this type—where people feel powerless and are looking for bogeymen to blame for their inability to act.

During the following years, my mind would be changed—not by the words of others but by the weight of my own experiences. But, the change began on that first trip. As I noted in my journal: “During our stay, we were shown documentation of U.S. involvement in Haitian affairs. It would take a very politically naive person not to believe we had our hands in it, as usual. The most unnerving evidence, however, we witnessed as a group.

When we were in the airport ready to leave for home, a group of men came in and sat down in the waiting area. Part of the group was U.S. people—part was Haitian. The members of both were very friendly with each other. One man, Haitian, with a walkie-talkie carried a stack of black and gold U.S.A. Diplomatic Passports. The men from both groups had the appearance, the look of military. And I know military, I grew up around it—my father was a full colonel and my daughter was an enlistee. It appeared the Haitian contingency had brought the U.S. group to the airport to make connections.

For some reason, I think most of us were more afraid there, in the airport waiting area, than we had ever felt out in the “political hot spots” that we had visited. Why was that? What was happening there? How can you tell when you’re being lied to?”

 

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