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

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

 

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.

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

 

To Duck or Not to Duck: The eyes have it

Let me begin midstream, about one year into observing. I was making trips of one to two weeks every three months. This particular event occurred on October 30, 1993.

The stench of decay and filth rides the waves of suffocating heat that radiate from air and pavement. Those not used to its impact stagger as they climb out of the cars. There is no problem finding the exact spot: the blood still encrusts the broken pavement. One assassination six weeks ago, another, last week—both happened here in Port-au-Prince, right outside this Catholic church, Sacre Coeur. Nothing moves in Haiti, now, except the flies and mosquitoes. The infrastructure has collapsed. The blood will mark this street as it does so many others until the rains come, until the lavalas [the yearly avalanche of cleansing rains that sweeps the debris and refuse before it—the Lavalas party of Aristide and associates was metaphorically named after this natural event] comes, again, to clean it and all the accumulated garbage away.

Today is the day that was marked for the return to Haiti of its democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. October 30, 1993, was the appointed time as designated in the Governor’s Island Accord. He did not come. Through a series of military bluffs, theatrical protests, and terrible foreign policy blunders, he was prevented from coming back. The people are desolate. Pro-democratic sympathizers, determined to make their presence seen, gather at the spots they feel he would have visited had he had been able to come home on this day. Our little group of fourteen is a tangent of this larger gathering. Earlier, there was a fair sized news conference with lots of media coverage. Unbelievable numbers of world press are here for what, they assumed, would be quite an event—possibly a bloody one—when Aristide came back and the military was forced to leave. Of course none of that happened. Up until now, our demonstration is the only show in town—therefore they all came to film and interview us. The conference was held in front of the church. Most of the group moves on to the next site for a meeting with United Nations Special Envoy Dante Caputo at the headquarters of the United Nation/Organization of American States Civil Mission. Our little bunch stays behind at the church. Our agenda is private. Most of the group either live here and work with the Haitian population or come in and out, periodically, supporting Haitian solidarity with one type of activity or another. Two of our friends, Antoine Izmery and Guy Malary, were murdered on this spot. Izmery, a wealthy Haitian businessman of Palestinian extraction, had been a solid supporter of President Aristide. His personal espousal of social justice was evidenced in all areas of his life. He had committed his personal influence, fortune and, eventually, his life to securing democracy and equality for all Haitians. Malary was the new Minister of Justice. He recently had been appointed to the post by Aristide. Even though his background would have ordinarily linked him to the elite, this brilliant, attractive young man had assumed the position because of his belief in the personal responsibility of each citizen in dedicating himself to the common good. Malary was aware that his life would be in danger– a fact that was made even more apparent when he began to close in on the true culprits responsible for the Izmery assassination, one of Malary’s first assignments. When it was evident that he was not going to be silenced, he, too, was murdered—outside the same church from which Antoine Izmery had been taken from Mass and shot in the head.

We have come here to pray for these men and for Haiti and for ourselves, as well, so that we will know how best to help in the times ahead. We are here to be seen—not by the media but by ordinary Haitian people—the ones unable to do this for fear of their lives. We do it for them, in their places, as a sign of hope. This also indicates how incredibly brave these people are, how determined, that two of them risked their lives to join us. Other than those two, the streets are clear.

We are alone now. We form a tight circle around the blood stains in the empty street. Most of the media left with the rest of our colleagues. Two members of our group who were present at Izmery’s shooting lay small bouquets of chrysanthemums on the spot where he died. We quietly sing. We begin the simple prayer service that we put together late on the previous night. I keep my head down, staring at the pavement, until it is my turn to speak. I lift my eyes and begin to read from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. It is now that I first see movement. Men in all-terrain vehicles slowly cruise the periphery of the area. Carefully watching us, they move through the cross streets. Nothing else moves. We are close together now, shoulder to shoulder, like flower petals. At our center, kneeling, are two cable TV news teams—CNN and a French company. They are not visible outside our circle because they are crouched low, filming up into our faces. The dirt and sweat seep down through our hair onto our necks and shoulders and down our backs. Everything is silent except for praying voices. Suddenly, a military transport roars into our street and pulls up abruptly against the outer edge of our circle. I look over my shoulder into the eyes of the military—their faces not four feet from my own. The soldiers stand up. They see the media people—with cameras aimed directly at them—huddled down in the center of our group. There are seven soldiers—three army and two police in the back of the truck, and two uniforms indistinguishable in the dark cab interior. They quickly drive the truck up the street, make a U-turn, and return, and face us, their automatic weapons aimed directly at us. At this point, we reach our final song—“We Shall Overcome”—and open our mouths and hearts to sing.

Aaron, my engineer husband, 750 miles away in Florida, was afraid this kind of confrontation would occur. He, and for that matter everyone I had ever met, was strongly against my coming here, especially by myself, during this cyclonic time. This logic held an element of truth.

Two questions that Aaron never asks me (swore he never would and never has) are: When I am home, he never asks when I’m going back; when I am here, he never inquires what I am doing the next day. Good choice. He would not be happy.

It is noon on Saturday and the wife he is supposed to pick up at Miami International Airport at 5:20 p.m. this afternoon is one of the targets registered in the gun sights of these uniformly unpleasant and impatient men.

Sr. Ellen, a wild Irish-American nun who is assistant director of the Hospice St. Joseph in Port-au-Prince, is standing on my right. When she sees our “company” pull up, she thinks, This is it and closes her eyes—she doesn’t want to see it happen. I, too, think, This is it, but I open mine wide so I won’t miss anything. This is my job. This is what I do. I observe and I report what I have seen. I am good at it because my curiosity has always been more aggressive than my common sense.

 

At least it was what I did when I was not working in the periodical department of the library or teaching Descriptive Astronomy (later Professor of English and Department Chair) at Palm Beach Community College (later became Palm Beach State College). Prior to October 1992, the H volume in the encyclopedia was as close as I had ever cared to get to Haiti. Then, how did I end up there reporting on human rights abuses? Why did I keep going back? No single, simple answer springs into mind. I had tried to sort out the strands: I made a particularly valiant effort in the fall of 1993, right before this, my fourth trip. Over that previous year, I became tied to Haiti and its people, and I wanted to be there for the return of President Aristide. It would be a pivotal time. I had no illusions about the possible dangers of doing this. The possibility of getting killed in situations like this—usually because of a dumb accident or a bad judgment call—was always real. Interior honesty seemed my best protection. If I did not have any hidden, unadmitted agendas, they could not subvert my thinking processes at some critical point. Reluctantly, I determined I should at least attempt to penetrate my motives for my involvement in the life and politics of a place I hardly knew a year before. However, I do not know any motives that bear close scrutiny gladly—for most are mixed at best—not a pleasant prospect, then, but a necessary one.

Where to begin.