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

 

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.

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.