Places and Faces: Compounding commitments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.