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

The Road to Verrettes

Around 1:30 p.m. Frantz, the Haitian priest, and Pat Labuda (a woman from the States who comes here regularly and our translator for this trip to the country) picked us up, at the Hospice, in an all-terrain vehicle and we were on our way to Verrettes. The main highway is a circus of crazy driving, avoiding pot holes (the whole infrastructure, here, is collapsing) and various vehicles (all sizes, shapes, colors, crammed with people and produce—no vehicle so full that it can’t hold one more—and the wild and strange tap-taps are indescribable).

Three-quarters of the way to Sant Marc, we took a side-road and went to the deserted beach located near a closed down Club Med. Frantz, Pat, Arsylvie (a nun from Venezuela), Gail, and I changed into bathing suits and swam for an hour in the sea. It was a superb treat and felt just a bit decadent.

Then, on the road again. At Sant Marc we came to our first army roadblock—a little scary. We were taken for tourists who had been swimming. Frantz had strategically draped a wet towel over the dashboard. That coupled with the dripping hair and the back end of the Rover full of backpacks evidently was convincing.

The road from Sant Marc to Verrettes defies description. To say it was dirt is to laugh. It was like driving up a mountain creek bed often with the creek cohabiting. After dark it became treacherous as we encountered huge ditches flooded with mud and water—with no means to judge the depth of the water or the tenacity of the mud. Somehow we made it though, always remembering to clap and shout “Bravo” for Frantz’s extraordinary driving acumen. We arrived at the rectory around 7 p.m. It was pitch black and cloudy.

On the trip, Frantz had told us of his close calls with the army. Last night, I dreamed we were with him as he was being pursued. In my dream I was afraid. I guess it was expressing my sublimated fear—fear that I had probably not allowed myself to feel while awake. I have had better night’s sleeps; I have had much better beds than a 2-foot wide cot; but, I have never been so thankful for just having a bed—the same with the moldy, spider-infested bathroom facilities. The rectory is ancient, huge, and austere—high ceilings, peeling walls, almost no furniture, the feeling of patchwork, everything in semi-disrepair. Solar batteries sit charging on the floors of the upstairs veranda. Last night, in the shower, the dust turned to mud and drained off of me. But, the experience did not.

The Women

10/28/92           6:30 a.m.   Verrettes. Now, after breakfast—I am not feeling so great. I am tired and have a bit of stomach dis-ease and dizziness. I've dug out the "Gummi Dolphins" I bought in the Miami airport. Perhaps I need a sugar-fix. In any event, Frantz Grandoit, the priest who drove us here to Verrettes, yesterday, and whose rectory we are staying at and whose room I was given, came in and chased down the little bird and released it through the window. Then, we affixed the shutters—no more birds that night.

Earlier in the evening, when I first entered Frantz’s room, I got this tremendous feeling of the presence of Teilhard de Chardin. Really strange. Trying to rationalize—maybe because three of the priests here are Frenchmen and Frantz teaches philosophy at the university and the room is lined with books and the room is rather Spartan. (Donkey braying now in the background).

Anyway, back to the Mass at the Hospice, yesterday, the first hymn was one based on Isaiah 61—one of my all-time favorites. The day was the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. Fr. Ron indicated Gail and I were being sent forth and he prayed for our safety. We made it here over unbelievable roads and through army check-points, so it must have worked.

After Mass, we went to Sans Fils Hospital located in Port-au-Prince. When we entered one of the large wards, the women sang songs of welcome for us—what a contrast, those sweet songs given to us from those dear ailing women. Then, Gail and I gave body rubs to the women in this jammed full ward of sick and dying. One appeared to be dead already—eyes rolled-up, no sign of breathing.

I got to use all sixteen words of my French—“C’est bon?” “Bon.” “Oui.” And, in a patchwork of sign-language and fractured French, I explained that I used to play games with the toes of my “petit bebe” when I bathed her. Then, I proceeded to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market” complete with “WEE WEE WEE all the way home” with their toes as I massaged their feet. Many smiled or chuckled. Some of the women we rubbed were horribly wasted (in every sense of the word). Hip bones protruding, breasts withered, skin broken out, subcutaneous lumps—all manner of illness—all bunched together. A strange consequence of those massages—the rubber gloves we wore and the lotion we used and the bodies we massaged combined to burn our fingers and temporarily erase our fingerprints. Symbolic meanings traced their ways through my thoughts.

All of this confused memory fragments striving to make whole cloth.

Port-au-Prince to Verrettes: Place and day blur

That evening, after dinner, Gail and I packed to leave for Verrettes the next day. Then, we moved out onto the balcony to socialize with the other people in residence. The individuals who ran Hospice St. Joseph, Sister Ann Weller, CSJ, and Fr. Ron Voss, are both from Indiana. There was a whole contingency of people from Indiana visiting here, too. They were with the Parish-Twinning Program. Also, there was retired priest, Fr. Joe Beckman, from Cincinnati here (he lives at the seminary in Cincy). Amazing to come all this way and meet up with home—or, at least, the area where I grew up and whose values I still share.

But, tomorrow, we would go to Verrettes (located in the Artibonite Valley) with a priest named Frantz Grandoit, O.P. We were told we would be put on a bus Thursday to wend our way back to Port-au-Prince on our own. My thought at that time, recorded in my journal: Tomorrow, we go to Verrettes—someone else’s home, someone else’s security—located in the most fertile valley in Haiti, the Artibonite, sequestered on the east and west by mountains, only approachable from the north or south ends of the island. So tomorrow we head north, then west, then south into the heart of the country. This is some adventure.

The next few days became a collage—even recalling them in my journal they came back to me as associated memories rather than chronically arranged happenings.

10/28/92          5:30 a.m.   Yesterday began and ended in a dream. Gail and I got up about five—after waking, as usual, with the chickens and dogs at four-fifteen. There was a heavy mist lying over Port-au-Prince, between the mountains, left over from the terrific rain the night before.

After breakfast with the staff and the gang from Indiana, Ron (Father Ron Voss, the priest from Muncie, Indiana, who runs the Hospice) had Mass—Creole and English. Gail read the First Reading and I did the Responsorial and the Gospel—first time I’ve ever read the Gospel at Mass. George came in during Mass. Afterwards, we had a short conference—found out we would be in Verrettes until Friday instead of Thursday. After George left, we went to Sans Fils with Sister Agatha.

Sans Fils is Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s home for the destitute and dying. As we drove through the entrance, we encountered a dead body lying at the gate. The man had been dropped there by the police. According to Sr. Agatha, this is not an uncommon occurrence. The police know the nuns will take care of burying the body and, consequently, dump bodies here. Now the body was lying there on the concrete and being bothered by flies while a couple of feet away the market was being set up.

Everywhere and always there is the smell of burning—charcoal, the garbage heaps—city and countryside alike, always the burning—and dogs that all look descended from the same dog. But very few birds—because the forests are gone. Last night in Verrettes, as I was getting ready to go to bed, something flew into the room. At first I thought it was a bat; but, when it fluttered to a resting spot, I saw it was a small bird. As I said, all of it connected—not by the clock but by an ancient instinct that understands the significance of patterns.

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.

Suffer the Little Children

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

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

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

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

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

The Thousand Word Problem: The responsible use of a camera

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

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

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

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

lady in mudpigs