“In my end is my beginning” Part 2

11/2/92           10:50 a.m.   We're home, but I'm still attempting to down-load material. I wish there had been time to write more when it was happening—but there simply wasn't. As it was, at night, we only got a couple of hours sleep—too much adrenalin pumping to rest.

In the doctor’s office, now—sitting in a paper smock. These are disposable, right? What a joke. Paper isn’t a minimal cost. How to describe the devastated landscape. Mountains stripped of hardwood trees—whole sides of mountains slid into huge rubble heaps, the insides exposed—a stark gray-white as though a giant knife had sliced open a loaf of stale and rotting bread. And the strange absence of birds—I saw four birds the whole time I was in Haiti (and five pigeons—at that point I was even happy to see pigeons)—and one of those birds ended up in my bedroom, flying in, bewildered in the lamp light. Sr. Ann told me that at one time Haiti was a harbor for wonderful birds—many never proceeded on the flyway to South America because they were so pleased with what they found in Haiti. But now there are no nesting places, no resting places—and the birds no longer come. And I remember the mornings full of the sounds of roosters and dogs, but eerily lacking the early joy of birds.

11/3/92          6:50 a.m.   I am in line waiting for the polls to open at 7 a.m. I will vote. I am thinking how much this would mean in Haiti. During the first election there, the army simply went in and sprayed the polls with bullets. The second election, a large number of U. N. observers came and the election proceeded without blood-letting—Aristide was elected. Seven months later a coup d’état forced their democratically elected president to flee. Gail and I met a peasant who had helped organize the voting out in the mountains. We talked to him in the small house where the balloting took place. Off to the side, sat the ballot box—lock broken, now. He still spoke of that time with a proud joy. Without exception, everyone we spoke with waited for the return of the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Whether or not the real Aristide is the man these people believe he is irrelevant. If he is not, he will simply have to become that man—because he has become an icon. He is the personification of their hope.

The startling thing about quiet revolution is the diversity of men and women that it breeds—We met all manner during our week in Haiti: activists full of political strategy and overviews; poets who suffered openly when they spoke; young men fresh from organizing workers in the field; people living committed lives as members of Catholic base communities; a nun who spoke out courageously before of group of religious with mixed loyalties; labor union visionaries; professors who meet with human rights task forces at night; a starving, pregnant woman standing on a rural bridge with two papayas to sell; women whose husbands had been “disappeared”; men from the deposed government who now lead secret lives. Is it possible to love a hundred different men and women at once—I think so. With so much courage and heart, it is impossible to turn away from any of them. One old French priest picked wildflowers for me as we slipped in out of secret meetings in almost inaccessible mountains where the roads were mostly imagination. To be so full of the hope for the future and yet so full of the present fragile joy seems to me to be the hallmark of these individuals. We can’t walk away from this situation, these lovely, suffering, yet hope-filled people. The intelligence, the sweetness, the commitment nail us—and condemn us if we refuse to respond. We all felt it—and we all made the same response—each of us carrying our own patron saint with us—Beth remembers an orphaned boy who asked her to be his family, Gail carries the face of a blue-eyed Haitian priest, and I—I recall the woman in hiding and the old French priest. I will continue to hold them within in the days ahead.

There is something about Haiti. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery and words don’t pry mystery loose. But, from the first moment I was there, I felt bound to it in some essential way. Later on in my trips, Fr. Freud Jean remarked to a gathering of delegates that I was Haitian inside. And, Fr. Antoine Adrian told a luncheon group at a Pax Christi USA National Assembly: “With Nancy, Haiti is a passion.” I’m not certain that I am all that different from others who went to Haiti. Haiti does something to a person—it’s like uncovering something lost in one’s self—something known but unknown. It’s a funny thing but I was changed—myself but more than self. One evening, I asked my friend, Father O., if he thought it was possible to fall in love with a hundred people and 7 million more by association. He just laughed and said, “Of course—you’ve been preparing for it your whole life.”   Now, I had to live it and live it with complete abandon. But, that sounds as if I had a choice. In truth, I did not because I had fallen in love, and this was only the beginning.

child

 

Diverse Approaches; One Goal

Another individual, Renaud Bernadin, Minister of Planning and External Cooperation, came to the Hospice to meet with us. His physical presence was that of a caged lion. He sat hunched forward, the power still obvious but his heart broken by the constraints of his circumstances. He echoed Evans Paul’s emphasis on the non-violent restoration of the democratically elected government. He, too, was in hiding. One statement from that meeting has remained in my mind—a poignant precis of that struggle.

His remark occurred when he tried to explain, in a small way, what life was like: “I’m living through this situation with pain in my heart. I’ve found solidarity with many others, but I also have much sadness. Because my life’s in danger, I live like a child—depending on others for food and shelter and getting around. Every time I meet with someone, that person’s a risk for me. Yet, I feel a solidarity with the Haitian people.”

He continued: “This solidarity makes some people accept death so that others may be saved. For example, there was a young girl with TB who received money for her medicine. She knew of two people in hiding who had no food to eat, so she gave them her medicine money for six months so they could eat! Her lungs split open and she died. Then, the two men in hiding had to leave the country. They tried to get asylum in the U.S. embassy but were refused. Beyond this kind of solidarity I find great hope—not a hope from heaven but a hope from how we work here on earth.” When I came back to the United States and began to give talks and interviews, this was one of the primary examples that I used as indicative of the determination and self-sacrificing love of the Haitian people.

We also met with representatives of the Ti l’Egliz (the little church—an outgrowth of liberation theology). The primary focus is to have the Catholic Church highly integrated in community life and to have the Church and its members live out of the basic Christian tenet of a preferential option for the poor. They and the priest who had accompanied them summarized that belief and dedication in this manner: “The problems of the people are our problems. The problems of injustice, security, and repression are our problems.” We had witnessed and I would continue to witness in the years ahead the transforming power of this commitment. It was a total integration of the true idea of Church into all aspects of life. The hierarchical idea so often associated with church was not evident here. Everybody was in it together.

Renaud Bernadin.jpg

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

Those We Met

12 Noon   Back in Port-au-Prince and the whole group is now at Sans Fils—where Gail and I had visited earlier in the week. The others have gone inside—I can't because I'll just spread more germs since I’ve managed to pick up a upper respiratory infection somewhere along the line. So I'm in a small spot of shade in the courtyard. Sweating has become my middle name.

We had a meeting with a priest in hiding, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, this morning. (Later, when I began to meet with him, trip after trip, I would simply call him Gerry—as did all his friends.) The determination of the clergy here is unbelievable. He sent a message back from his hiding place—“We will make it—There is no other way.”   In a letter that he had us hand deliver, back in the States, to my friend, Father O, he wrote: “I’m in good shape. I’m in hiding. It is true my name is on death lists, and I have received death threats. But I have great hope that I will make it. In case I don’t, we will see each other someday where God is.”

The courage, the tenacity with which these priests persist in fighting for the rights of the people is amazing. They hide, they are beaten, they are jailed, they die—but they persist. I don’t think the de facto government can possibly understand; if it did, it would give up now. The resistance is so deep, so ingrained, so much a matter of being that this illegal regime will simply never be anything but a superficial association—the people will never accept it. And, their priests will support them in this and give the structure and strength they are unable to provide for themselves. Gail and I are both moved by the open handed acceptance of these men. They share their beds, their food (meager, in most cases) in a wonderful camaraderie that accepts you not because they know you, but because they know what you’re about and why you’re here. Afterwards they do it because they love you. There don’t seem to be any intermediate stages. As one man said, “To say is to be.” I have a small bunch of flowers pressed into my journal pages. Mon Pere (Pierre Salvetti) an older French priest picked them for me in the mountains above the Artibonite. He and the driver, Sylveste, had taken us there to meet and talk with the people—even a voodoo priest in his sanctuary (of course, by that time, Gail and I had both used the last of our film, so I guess people will just have to take our word for it). We saw the voting venues and spoke with those who had been poll workers. Interviewed three women we met on the road. Listened to a small group of men working fields, fields held by absentee landowners, fields that would provide food for the world market but not for these men. In every interview that day, one thing was incredibly obvious: Even in this remote area where eroded mountains and rivers full of that erosion isolated people into small settlements, the populace was dedicated to return of democracy, symbolized at this time by the return of their elected president, Aristide. Although this dedication came at a terrible price—disappearances, murders, tortures, dispossession, rape, and all types of repression, these people were determined. It was not an uninformed decision. They knew what it had cost and would continue to cost them.gerard jean-juste

In the Country

10/30/92          9:10 p.m.   Verrettes   Last night we changed residence. We moved from the rectory to the convent across the way. Before we left for the evening, Fr. Gilles Dan-Roc and Frantz told us about a young man/boy of twenty who had been out here on the square playing dominoes in front of the convent on October 11th at 9 p.m. The military came by and insisted that the boy was breaking the arbitrary and unofficial curfew (time and enforcement up to whomever wants to use it for perverse intentions). They broke the young man's arm as punishment. This morning, lying here in bed at the convent talking to Gail, I looked up (I had moved from the head to the foot of my bed last night because of air circulation). Up on the wall, over my bed, hung a crucifix. The arm of the Christ was broken.

In the morning, we had attended a Mass said by Pere Salvetti where he anointed us with oil. Gail and I mused it was as if we had been re-baptized and re-confirmed on this trip to Verrettes. Afterwards we went up into the mountains. On our way, we had forded the Artibonite River—not easy with the swift water and the bed full of boulders. As we made it to the other side, I saw a little girl—maybe five or six years old—brushing her teeth with river water. It was an act of futility—the water was as thick and sable brown as chocolate mousse. The water’s color came from the all the top soil that is eroded into the feeding streams. Haiti’s mountains have been denuded—trees cut down and harvested to produce charcoal. As a consequence, the terrain is gouged out in long, devastating gorges and the remaining land is nutrient poor.

As we were making our way up the mountain (the road was hardly a road, more of a rough, rock-strewn path), Pere Salvetti pointed to a spot where a vehicle recently had gone over the side. All passengers had been killed. The drop off all along the road was sheer and there was no foliage to break the descent. Once a vehicle went over, it didn’t stop until it reached the bottom. Imagine our shattering surprise when, once we returned to Port-au-Prince, we were informed that the lug-nuts on our vehicle had been loosened and only through a fluke or probably the grace of God the wheels had not come off in the mountains and all of us killed in a similar accident. It was speculated that the Macoutes member who lived behind the rectory in Verrettes may have been responsible for the sabotage.

That day we also visited the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer located at Descapelles—near Verrettes. The hospital is located in buildings and grounds once owned by the United Fruit Company. It is an extraordinary institution established by Dr. Larimer and Gwen Mellon. They had read about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa and established a correspondence with him. Inspired by his work, Larimer Mellon attended medical school and Gwen Mellon became a medical technician. They endowed and opened the hospital in the area of Haiti most cut off from medical services. We toured the facilities and were amazed at what was being provided for the poorest of the poor. But, it is charity of the right type. Individuals are charged for the services—the equivalent of one day’s wages. In that way, those who are treated do not feel demeaned. As we approached the buildings, we saw a line of people waiting to be seen. They were protected from the sun by majestic hardwoods—hardwoods that spread large umbrella branches as shade and whose leaves moved, generous fans, in the mountain breeze. This was the only place that we ever saw the magnificent hardwoods that had originally covered Haiti.

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Verrettes. Outside the little houses and along the road, little coal oil lanterns, each about the size of a regular vegetable can and containing a wick, were being lit. Men, with roosters under their arms, were heading down the road. Cock fights would provide the evening’s entertainment. I understood but I was also repelled. During the daytime the usual pastime is dominoes. Score in this game is kept by attaching pincher-type clothes pins to the jaw and chin areas. It makes for some really strange looking individuals.

pere salvettiPD_0034women of verrettes

 

Empathy as Language

10/27/92          9:10 p.m.   Today, the group broke into two subgroups: One, with John, Beth, Gary, and Mev, is leaving for Cap Haitien, today; the other, with Gail and me, will be traveling to Verrettes (in the Artibonite Valley), tomorrow. After the others left, Gail and I spent the day at the Hospice. But, we weren’t inactive: We had an intensive afternoon of interviews. Gail took notes while I questioned. Matthieu and, later, George translated.

The first individual was Patrick Numas, the General Secretary of OGITH, Organisation Generale Independante Des Travilleiurs, Trailleuses D’Haiti and CODDHUS, the committee that deals with specific human rights abuse of the workers. His documentation was primarily concerned with the Haitian workers—the lack of work, the miserable wages and working conditions, and the repression and intimidation of those who were able to secure working positions.   He provided multiple pages of documented cases—in French.

And, he spoke French. I was frustrated by the language barrier. But, we developed a technique around it. Even though a translator relayed our parts of the conversation, we never once looked at the translator. We kept our eyes on each other. That allowed us to see facial reactions and body language—that subtle element of communication so important for true understanding of intent. From that afternoon on and during the years to come, Patrick and I would remain in contact—still in need of a translator but no longer bound by language.

The next interviewees were two men from MGL, a youth movement centered in Labadie—a place the cruise ships visit—when the local (paramilitary and repressive authorities guarantee safety), a place that wears the façade of lovely “native village” featuring “native crafts.” We are witness to the ugly reality festering beneath the tourist brochure. I am humbled and frightened and strangely energized by these testimonies and stories and with the hopeful confidence, the extreme trust these people put in our determination to put out the word of what they are suffering and what is really happening here. I am awed by the responsibility this places on us. They believe we will speak for them—they spend their time—they risk their lives talking to us. We must honor this trust. And, it scares me that we might fail them for one reason or another.

The interview started after lunch. The two young men, two translators, Gail and I arranged six chairs in the small chapel. We sat in a relaxed circle—the two young men facing Gail and me at a bit of an angle. The windows provided excellent natural lighting so we didn’t bother with the overhead light.

We began with introductions. The young men spoke softly, almost shyly, heads slightly inclined. As the interview continued, I found myself moving forward in my chair—more and more until my rear was resting on the edge of the chair and my arms and sometimes my elbows rested on my knees, my head craned forward toward the speaker. Gail took notes and I presented the questions.

As the afternoon progressed, I listened less and less to the translators and found myself relying more and more on a strange rapport. I did not pale Kreyol at that time—in fact, I don’t speak it all that well now. But, that afternoon, I understood Creole. One of the young men, Jean (not his real name), mirrored my posture. The afternoon light dimmed; time passed unnoticed; I listened to Jean. All else ceased to register in my consciousness—only Jean repeating the horrific stories of his own firsthand experiences and of the experiences of the peasants with whom he and his group work—the beatings, the rapes, the forced rapes between family members, the homes burnt to the ground, the property and money extorted to prevent beatings, the imprisonment and murders, and, finally the forced displacement, separation from the land which is the only source of livelihood. Of those left alive, many are left without home and income.

At some point, during the afternoon, I realized that the exchange between us had transcended language—we simply understood each other. It was like a strange gift of tongues.

Later, I asked Gail if she had understood what was being said—especially since she was charged with taking notes on a conversation that was ignoring, to a large extent, the translators, and she indicated that she had experienced snatches of the same understanding. It was as though everything disappeared but the empathy of the correspondents. When the spell finally broke, we realized the light in the room was now the dimness of twilight and the afternoon was gone. And, when the two young men left the Hospice, I felt as if part of me was leaving with them—not metaphorically, but truly. It would not be the last time this happened. Before my sojourn as a human rights observer was over, Haiti and its people had become a part of my being and my soul. I could never, again, view its suffering or its history as something separate from my own life.

numas

 

Two Who Typified the Many

After dinner on the first evening, we met with the man who would become, for me, the archetypal embodiment of the people and history of Haiti: Fr. Antoine Adrien. Antoine Adrian, CSSp, co-founder of Washington Office on Haiti, mentor to Aristide, and negotiator at the Governors' Island Accords. He became director of College St. Martial (Kolej Sen Masyel), the Spiritan elementary-secondary school in Port-au-Prince, after the 1990 elections. But, that evening, he was simply Pere Adrien and, yet, even at this first meeting, it was evident that this was someone extraordinary.

He had a quiet, calm presence—a soft voice that concealed strength. His intelligence, vitality, and determination belied his age—70—in fact, there was an ageless quality to his presence.   His words outlined, with a succinct clarity, all that had transpired since the coup. He was able to convey, in a manner that I have never seen paralleled, the terrible suffering endured by the people and the country. And, somehow he seemed to hold all of it in him as personal.

It is impossible to describe his personal magnetism—not the same that one experiences in the usual public figure but a humility that made him all the more compelling because there was no personal aggrandizement or agenda. He simply spoke the heart of the truth—and because of it he was irresistible.   He would be the one whom, trip after trip, I would seek out to weigh and measure the situation. There was integrity in him that I have not often found. When he spoke, I knew I could trust the words—an important asset in a situation so incredibly fluid.

That night, we sang, for the first time, a hymn that would fill my heart and mouth many times in the months and years ahead: “Little by little, we will get there.”

The next morning, we met with another wonderful man, a priest and scholar (his name is withheld because of the continued threat to his person), from the northern part of Haiti. He had been a college professor and administrator for more than two decades and he was a guiding light in the Catholic Church of Haiti’s attempt to improve the literacy rate—especially among the peasants.

The literacy program, Misyon Alfa, and his outspoken criticism of the political situation had made him powerful enemies. He had been in hiding (as many of those we spoke with were) since the coup. When he traveled to and from his home area, he did so in a circuitous manner since he was highly recognizable and would have been arrested.

One of the important areas of information that he offered had to do with the repression of young people, especially students. Knowing that we were going to embark on observation trips to the countryside, he advised us to watch the people closely—he indicated we would see fear. During the Duvalier years, he stated, there were certainly fear and misery but the situation now was a free for all. There was no indication where the violence and repression would occur. Even small things were used to harass the population—car lights, mirrors, arbitrary searches of vehicles and peoples’ persons, which both humiliate and intimidate.

In parting he offered our delegation an amazing and humbling bit of support in our determination to listen and report what is happening in Haiti: “The presence of someone near another one who is suffering is the presence of God. It is an encouragement.”

After the morning session, we adjourned to lunch and then the time came for us to go into the countryside to witness for ourselves. There is a Haitian proverb that sums up the reasoning for this and all the trips I would make in the future: Sa je pa we ke pa tounen. What the eye doesn’t see doesn’t move the heart.