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

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


From Door to Door: Oriented and disoriented

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

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

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

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

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

first delegation

Landing: Reality vs imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To Pack or Not to Pack: An opportunity for miracles

Four days after my father’ death—I was back home standing, staring at the dining room table covered with granola bars, hiking boots, Band-Aids, bug repellent, and film. I was incapable of packing. I had reached the end of my coping abilities. I didn’t get angry; I didn't cry; I didn't collapse. I didn't pack, either. Out of this systems failure, arose one of the cherished traditions of my Haiti trips: Aaron packs.

I will look at the tabletop contents, know I can’t fit it into the backpack and suitcase, and do one of two things, depending on my mood and level of exhaustion. I will announce definitively, “It won’t fit” and walk into the other room, turn on the CD player, and pick up a book. Or, I will take everything, cram it into those two cases, ruin every item in the process, and provide secondary proof of the existence of black holes. Neither is really desirable.

I had not made up my mind how to approach this particular situation when Aaron walked in. Before long, he had all the paraphernalia laid out on the family room floor. He divided, conquered, and Baggie-d everything. Two hours later, it was all secured. Sunflower seeds separated into individually cloistered servings, one set of underwear and socks (matching) unitized, inconceivable order was ranked and utilized in my luggage. In the chaotic days ahead, I would thank God again and again for the divinely aggravating methodology reflected in my husband.

Meanwhile Beth had been dealing with all the situations I had left behind, unresolved, when I left for Daddy’s funeral. Prior to this media had not been on her radar. For Beth the trip was to be more private—a time to be quiet, open to whatever Haiti and the Haitian people had to present. I had more or less agreed to handle media—but I flew north—and she was left to deal with four television stations, three radio stations, and three newspapers. But, she picked up the responsibility and handled it. She got her whole family involved. Her young son, Eric was interviewed, and all three of them, including her husband, John, were filmed as she packed.

Another item Beth had to take on was the final assembly of the medical goods we planned to take in with us. Don Chester, the President of St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach had provided us with a number of items, neatly packed, boxed and easily handled. Aaron had gone by the hospital loading dock and picked those up the week before. Another friend of mine, an artist and art professor at the college, Alessandra, had set about collecting funds and then gone to a Palm Beach drug store to purchase and beg for additional supplies. She arrived at Beth’s the day before we were scheduled to leave with an unbelievable volume and variety of materials. All this, coupled with another quantity of supplies—from friends of ours who owned a pharmacy—presented Beth with a formidable packing assignment.

Somehow or other, she managed it. In a suitcase that looked as if it might have been part of the Czar’s turn of the century packing cases for vacations in the Crimea, she managed to secure it all, plus a gross of granola bars donated by the St. George’s Episcopal Church soup kitchen. It was the re-stuffing of tens of clowns into a small car; it was the miracle of the loaves and fishes in reverse; and, Beth, with what must have been Divine intervention, managed to perform it. Perhaps even more miraculous, she was able to carry this elephantine piece of luggage.

Late Saturday afternoon, Aaron and I pulled in the Beth’s driveway and loaded up the trunk of the car as the West Palm Beach WPEC-TV Channel 12 News interviewed and filmed. Then, out of respect, they turned off the cameras so John and Beth and Eric could say good-bye.

Off to Miami. Aaron played chauffeur while Beth and I sat in the back seat madly practicing what we termed “Panic Creole”. Ede mwen! Kote twalet la? (Help me. Where is the bathroom?) and other basic survival phrases. After the first trip, a more important phrase replaced the bathroom question (which usually was a hopeless one anyway): Gen yon pwoblem ak machin mwen. Eske sa grav? Eske mwen ka kondi li kon sa? (I have a problem with my car. Is it serious?   Can I drive it this way?

It was deep dusk when we pulled into the Catholic Haitian Center courtyard in the Little Haiti section of Miami. Aaron dutifully unloaded the boxes, backpacks, and “the suitcase from hell” in the foyer. He met the other members of the delegation who had arrived, and, with whispered, but intense, admonitions and a final kiss which, I am afraid, he really felt was final, asking if I was sure this was what I wanted to do, he left. It had begun, at last.

Death and Burial

The next few days were a jumble—bright, poignant images intersticed with gray timelessness. Everything slid. The confusion of half-dreamed phone calls, the dreaded final comprehension of accepted necessity and plans that always seemed in the process and never final—even when I actually was on the plane heading toward Cincinnati. In many ways, the layover in Atlanta was the terminus. It was there that I heard, by phone, that my father, Colonel Harold ____________, Army of the United States, Retired, had died—had died, actually, before I made it to Palm Beach International Airport. Why was it I hadn't sensed his sudden absence? This man was my paradigm, my first experience in strength and reason and in love. He was gone.

My hometown lies in the Ohio River Valley, halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati. It’s a small town whose cultural heritage is German and Irish with the softly blurred edges made inevitable by decades of river traffic. The hills rise steeply on both sides of the river bank and hold lots of wonderful treasures for kids to hunt for and find: geodes, agate, trilobites, and Indian relics. The night sky there is a field of stars. It is the spot that gave me ground.

There, autumn is like liquid fire. Everything goes up in flames. The hills, covered in early spring with red bud and dogwood, are encompassed with the fiery limbs of maples, oaks, sycamores, and elms in the fall. The sky in October is azure glass: Thin, brittle and bright—almost beyond the range of vision in its clarity. The air has an edge to it, unbreathable at times in its sharpness.

On a perfect autumn day, my father was buried. The cemetery is as old as the town and almost full now. His grave lies among those of the multiple generations.

We had a military funeral service and burial. A chaplain, pallbearers, bugler, and honor guard drove down from Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for the services. At the cemetery, the local American Legion post, members dressed in red blazers—the color blending with the autumn hills, stood in neat formation a hundred yards from the grave. They had not come to conduct a ceremony, the commander assured us, they just wanted to be present and show their respect as a unit.

The honorary pallbearers were all men Daddy had commanded in the Battle of the Bulge. Some had driven many hours to be with him this last time. At the end, the honor guard fired a twenty-one gun salute. While Taps was played, the flag from his coffin was folded and three spent rounds from the salute were placed within its creases. Then, the flag was presented to my mother. These final ceremonies were dignified, in keeping with his life and what was important to him.

This was the trauma of the week before departure. The death was so sudden. I felt as if I were a ghost—present, but somehow not a part of what was occurring. I moved like an automaton, doing what was expected and doing it in a rational, well-delineated manner.

I’m always good in a crisis because I am removed. I become an observer. I’m not even certain it catches up with me afterwards. All I know is I have to remain functional—that becomes almost my sole priority. All during the preparations and the funeral, I managed to plan, orchestrate, and accomplish all that needed to be taken care of—whether it involved people or logistics. I accomplished a lot, but I felt very little—whether as a result of shock or intentional removal I don’t know. The effect is the same.

Somewhere in the debris of that week, I realized this would probably preclude the trip to Haiti. I wasn’t happy about this but I didn’t say much. Oddly enough, the decision was made without me being consulted and made by an unexpected source: my mother. She announced that I was still going and that the flights would be arranged to get me back to Florida in time to meet up with my group in Miami for the departure on Sunday. She said she thought this was what my father must have wanted—that he almost seemed to arrange his death to allow for it. Also, it was what she wanted as well. Sometimes, you don’t argue with your parents.

So at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, Aaron, Vickie, Katherine and I drove the rental car back to Cincinnati and caught a flight back to West Palm Beach. Nothing was changed; everything was changed. And, in a strange way, with his death, my father granted me independence. I was free to pursue this venture in my own way. I knew he would have approved. Somewhere along the line, I had received his blessing.

Life as Laundry: Mismatched socks and irreconcilable colors

Everyone had an opinion. Friends, family, people in Publix—there didn’t appear to be a neutral individual anywhere. The barrage of viewpoints was a gift (although it didn’t seem so at the time). I felt forced to justify my decision to go—at least when it was someone close, like my mother. Eventually, I moved past that to a sort of neutrality, a place where I could take in the objections and support and not have either disrupt my center.

The intervening days were a jumble of feelings and activities: planning a rudimentary will and funeral (just in case); struggling to integrate the terrible reality revealed in the PBS program, Haiti: Killing the Dream; attempting to find suitable answers for those who questioned my decision to go; buying granola bars and water; getting inoculations, antimalarials, and antibiotics; begging for supplies to distribute—everything from t-shirts to toothbrushes; juggling local media exposure—four TV stations, three newspapers, and several radio stations; and, of course, collecting the necessary funds to make the trip.

Fundraising was a major concern. Where to come up with $800? I put in my birthday money. I even successfully approached the bishop for a contribution. Much of the rest of it was begged from friends, associates, and unlucky passersby. Every group I’d ever been a member of or invited to join heard from me in my attempts to solicit funds. Fanatical desperation knows no dignity.

But, overall, it was six weeks’ worth of grinding uncertainly coupled with a continued lack of specific forthcoming information from the national organization. In the meantime, I went to work every day and attempted to live my life.

Finally, on October 9th, I wrote in my journal: “There was a message on the answering machine from Wilfrid at Pax Christi U.S.A. The news is we will be staying at the Haitian Catholic Center in Miami for orientation, then, flying by American Airlines to Haiti. Wilfrid will be mailing out a packet of information on Monday—detailed info on medical preventatives, visa stuff, etc.”

Nothing arrived so I called PC-USA again on the 13th. I spoke to Tom and was able to find out where we would be staying in Port-au-Prince, the administrators’ names, and telephone numbers. And, I continued to do research on Haiti—including reading all the clipped newspaper articles in the Vertical File at the College library—run errands and, finally, fill out paperwork. But, I was still antsy and continued to get on everyone’s nerves. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

On the 15th, I recorded: “My mother called this evening and said she and Daddy were sending me $100 for spending money. She said they had no idea how much it meant to me, how excited I was. They are now supporting me, as well.

“Up until this time, the only support my mother has offered was lighting a 7-day candle at the parish church in my home town. My mother was angry with me for putting myself so recklessly in harm’s way. She thought that my obligations to my husband, Aaron, our daughter, Vickie, and especially to our granddaughter, Katherine, were far more important than this hare-brained scheme of mine. Her protest of my decision has been to refuse all financial assistance.

“My father is living in a nursing home at this point. Several minor but incapacitating strokes have rendered him physically weak, and his mind is no longer the keen instrument it once was. It is often difficult for me to talk to him because I can never tell for certain how much he understands. Evidently, he understood more of the phone conversation we had a few nights ago than I thought he had at the time. The change of heart in their financial support my mother informed me of this evening was one they reached jointly—I have no doubt of it.”

It was also interesting to note my parents’ feelings about the Berrigan Brothers were beginning to change—a prime example of how personal experience can alter generalized conclusions and feelings. Mother and Daddy had honest reasons for not respecting these men. My parents’ whole premise of life was different—the one being a real threat to the beliefs of the other. But, because of the personal kindness and concern that Father Daniel Berrigan had shown me at the retreat the previous spring and his subsequent offer to introduce me to his personal physician when he later found out that I was in all likelihood losing my eyesight due to MS, my mother and father had begun to see these brothers as real individuals instead of pasteboard ideograms. By the time Father Berrigan helped me through those final days with Ted, my mother loved and respected him almost I much as I did.”

And, then on October 21, my father died.