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.

haiti3

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.

I Don’t Know Is on Third: My life as a vaudeville routine

The following September, a second anomaly in my usual asocial consciousness life occurred: I attended the Pax Christi state convention held at St. Leo's Abbey near Tampa, Florida. At breakfast, on the last morning of this gathering, I found myself seated next to Anne McCarthy, O.S.B., the group's National Coordinator. She mentioned, in passing, that Pax Christi would be sending a delegation to Haiti the last week in October. "I'll go," I announced and everyone at the table—including me—turned around to see who had spoken. The group’s response was marked by amazement and disbelief. The most action they had witnessed from me was an occasional cough. No one really took me seriously—well, almost no one. After breakfast, I went right to the pay phone and called Aaron, my husband.

“I’m going to Haiti,” I said. “Is it all right?”

“Are you asking or telling?” he inquired. He maintains that I tell him things after the fact because I find it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“Well…”

“You can go, but we can’t pay for it. You’ll have to find the money.” My husband is an electrical engineer and, at that time, was a partner in a small consulting firm. Since the Fall 1991 Recession had hit, we were squeezed and I knew he was right about not being able to pay for the trip.

“Okay!” I yelled in excitement—and had no earthly idea where I would locate $500 for expenses. It later turned out to be $800. I did not care. I was going. It was official. Why I was going, what I would do there, who I was going with, where I would be staying—nothing was clear. In fact, it still would be unclear when I deplaned six weeks later in Port-au-Prince. Small stuff—it would take care of itself. And, it did.

I do not wait well. I have never been accustomed to existence that did not involve forcing the issue. I am a control freak, inordinately proud my intellectual precision and my focused attack on material presented. Presented is the key word here. Days passed into even more days and I still had no precise or even vague information about the approaching trip. Relatives and friends were asking pointed questions and not only did I not have any good answers—I had no answers at all. Exasperating.

During the interval, I decided that it would be a good idea to try to drag someone else along, as well. When I returned from the convention I called Beth. I had met her earlier in the year and had roomed with her at the Berrigan retreat. We found we had much in common, including an unpleasant experience in the past. Sharing the particulars of this had made us fairly close. My opening telephone remark to her was: “I’m going to Haiti.   Do you want to come?” “Yeah, I think so,” was her answer. It was pretty much downhill from there. It sounds crazy. But, nonetheless it is the way it happened. Life altering decisions for both of us had been made on a sort of spur of the moment, almost thoughtless assent. It all seemed so natural, inevitable.

I noted in my journal: “Beth’s friend, Father Sebastian, who lived and worked in Haiti, said this trip to Haiti will change us—that the gift of the place is that we will never view things the same way again. I am counting on, longing for this change—not even knowing what it is or how I will be affected. Everything seems to be building, accumulating toward some breakthrough moment. Is it wishful thinking or reality? How to know? Does knowing even matter?”

On September 28th, I connected with Sr. Anne and found out our Pax Christi delegation would be going from Oct 24th to Nov 1st with orientation in Miami. It sounded perfect. My journal recorded: “I’m beginning to get excited now it’s actually taking shape. It’s real—actual and real. And, a little frightening as well.”

That evening, I noted:   “Some Jesuit named John Dear (I think, or maybe I got the name screwed up because of the tractor and four weeks from now I’m gonna be really embarrassed because I don’t know who he is and everybody else obviously does—oh well) and three members of his group in California are going. Anne said they are trying for a group of twelve, which she doesn’t think will be any trouble achieving. I feel such a wild joy about all this—something so deep I can’t really articulate it. I’m almost afraid to delve into it for fear it will prove fraudulent.”

In the meantime, another problem had arisen. The decision that I made so easily was not being accepted as easily by some of my friends and family. I had failed to realize that some personal decisions involve more than one person.

A Series of Fortunate Coincidences: Nothing can ever replace dumb luck

For ten years, I had been a member of the Catholic peace and social justice organization, Pax Christi International. I did not belong because of a particularly energetic commitment to the organization's ideals. I belonged because a good friend, Phyllis, had helped start the state and local units. I wanted to give her the same support she had given me in my endeavors. So, I joined and I paid my dues.

And, that was pretty much that until she and Father Frank, another close friend of mine and, at that time, the pastor of a local parish, were asked by the State Department to go down to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to report on the Haitian refugee compound set up there. That was December 31, 1991.

No one asked me to go. Why should they? The local crew hardly knew I was alive. How could I expect my existence to be noted at higher levels? If death is the absence of activity, I qualified as dead. Nevertheless, I wanted to go. This was not a humanitarian urge.

My friends were going on what appeared to be an important adventure and I wanted to go with them. That time, I did not go. I did not say anything but I was not happy about it.

At a birthday party early the next year I took the next step in the journey of coincidences. It was there I found out who the speaker would be at the annual Pax Christi Florida spring retreat. I had never attended this retreat or even one of the fall conventions, but that changed when I heard that the scheduled speaker was Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.—one of the famous Berrigan Brothers who, in the nineteen sixties, had been a part of the civil disobedience and anti-war demonstrations.

I wanted to see him. It had nothing to do with conversion or spirituality; it had to do with aesthetics. This man was history. I wanted to see him and this might be my only opportunity. I was prepared to observe him that weekend—from a distance. I had no intention of being interfered with, let alone touched. Even now, I recall only a couple of incidents from that encounter.

The first involved a friend, Ted, who lived in Washington, D.C. and was HIV-positive. Ted and I had grown up together and shared an interest in science and, despite time and distance, remained close friends. Back in 1987, Ted had asked me to assume his Power of Attorney and to be his executrix in case of incapacitating illness or death.

Over the years, Ted had become estranged from the Catholic Church but he wanted to find some way to reestablish his connection. Each person’s relationship with God is unique. I had no idea how to approach another’s passion. At one of the retreat sessions, Father Berrigan said he worked with AIDS patients. So, I decided to speak with him during one of the breaks. I thought he might know someone in the D.C. area who would visit Ted and help him through this faith crisis. What I had perceived as a slightly aloof, somewhat distant man focused in on me tightly and gave me specific and pointed assistance and a personal encouragement in what was still ahead of me.

A little more than a year later, it would be Father Berrigan who held Ted tenderly in his arms and prayed with him on the afternoon before his death. He was with Ted while I frantically fought my way through cancelled flights and closed airports to get to his bedside. Ted died peacefully at 3:20 a.m. the next morning. This priest was the piece of history I went to view that spring of 1992. This history became my history that weekend.

The other thing I recall was a seven word phrase—Father Berrigan stated: “Do the good in front of you.” I do not know exactly when he spoke it, but it provided a stay, a mooring that snagged my life, swung it about, and changed everything.

Until that time, as far as I could see, picket lines, letters to the editor, protests of one kind or another never seemed to accomplish much, simply wasted effort. If I could have seen balance between effort and result, my strained logic would have been mollified. My German background demanded that activity be justified—it was a basic element in my education. No one had ever released me from the burden of proven value.

Then, this Jesuit, every bit as smart and rigorous as I was, said: “Do the good in front of you.” He went on to explain it was not necessary to be concerned about results. They were not our responsibility. I heard echoes of T.S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I knew I could live with that. Suddenly, I was free and the stage was set.

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.