PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Courage, integrity, rage; hunger, disillusionment, fear—a group of mostly Bay Area human rights workers and journalists found it all, here on this embattled island, where once-enslaved people rose up 200 years ago to found the pro ud independent black nation of Haiti.
Among the dozens of people interviewed on the streets, in jail, in union halls, in homes, at demonstrations and at spiritual events, we found unbridled hope and deep discouragement, bravery and dread; we witnessed dr ums and dance that filled people with the spirit of life and we heard testimony after testimony of family members charred or riddled with bullets in sordid death.
Courage incarnate. That’s Annette Auguste, sitting in the crowded visitors’ cell at the pr ison in Petionville, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Her brown eyes gleaming, the prisoner lent her strength to the group that squeezed into the space around her. “I am not afraid,” the folksinger and Lavalas activist said. “I have too much support. T hey won’t do anything to me.”
Lavalas is the political party of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest whose theology and political goals have been directed at empowering the poor and voiceless. On Feb. 29, according to accounts writ ten by the exiled leader, Aristide was forced out of the country by U.S. officials. The State Department version says that, in response to his call for help, the U.S. facilitated Aristide’s escape from a country in turmoil.
Port-au-Prince resident Wilfred Lavaud talked about the arrest of his wife Sò Anne, a folk singer and Lavalas supporter. “On May 10, the American military came into the house at one in the morning and said they had information that Sò Anne attacked their forces and had large guns in the house,” said Lavaud. Weapons were not found and a judge declined to prosecute the activist on the original charges. Yet Sò Anne, like still uncounted numbers of Lavalas supporters, remains in custody without precise charges and without a trial date.
This, of course is in stark contrast to last week’s trial of Louis Jodel Chamblain. Chamblain is a leader of “rebel” forces that brutally took over portions of Northern Haiti at the beginning of the year. This group continues to control parts of Haiti ne ar the Dominican Republic border, according to UN officials. Chamblain had been found guilty in absentia for the murder of an Aristide ally in 1993. Under Haitian law, the “rebel” leader had the right to a retrial on his return to Haiti. Chamblain was acquitted in a retrial that lasted one day only. (He remains “jailed”—he has a single cell at the woman’s prison—on other charges.)
Haiti’s U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has called the rebels “freedom fighters;” on Aug. 15, a group of 150-200 “rebels” was permitted to march through the streets of Port-au-Prince carrying their weapons. (A United Nations spokesperson said the peacekeeping organization didn’t stop them because their job is to support the Haitian police, not intervene on t heir own.)
A People’s Politician
Integrity. Our politicians throw the word about until it pops like a plastic bubble.
Meet Jean Charles Moïse, mayor—I should say former mayor—of Milot, a northern rural district of some 50,000 inhabitants. The area a bounds in coconut palms, avocados and passion fruit; groves of banana trees line its narrow roadways. The 30-something father of four is among the more than 400 mayors and countless other local elected officials across the country booted out of office alo ng with Aristide, creating chaos throughout the tiny nation.
Of peasant stock, Moïse grew up in Milot, where, at great financial sacrifice, his parents sent him and his three sisters to school. As a young man, Moïse began to organize fellow peasants int o the Peasant Organization of Milot to help them get title to the land that they share-cropped. He ran for mayor in 1995 promising to enforce Article 74 of the Haitian Constitution, which says that local government has the right to redistribute local gove rnment-owned land. (Most of the so-called landowners didn’t have legal title to the land they claimed—it actually belonged to the government; they held it as a result of favors from the Duvalier governments.) Moïse was elected mayor in 1995 with 85 percent of the vote and again in 2000 with 70 percent.
The popularity of the mayor of Milot was evident on Aug. 14, when he appeared in public for the first time in months at a pro-Lavalas protest march that drew more than 2,500 participants. Cheered loudly by supporters, the mayor stayed at the march only briefly, surrounded by the group of human rights workers in bright orange shirts, who believed their presence would help Moïse stay safe. As popular as the Lavalas partisan is with his community, he has an gered Haiti’s elite over the years by his tireless work for land reform and his penchant for calling for locals to plant crops for their consumption rather than devoting the soil to export products such as tobacco. He is the subject of frequent threats against his life and property.
While the Aug. 14 march was a time for many to put their fears aside, don their Aristide t-shirts and protest publicly against the government they say is unconstitutional, many stayed away, some in hiding, others too afraid to demonstrate their Lavalas loyalty in public. In Port-au-Prince, I spoke to one radio journalist who had worked in the north, but now hides in the densely populated capital. There it’s easier to be anonymous, he said, noting that he never sleeps in one home for long.
Many people have been traumatized by the violence that characterized—and continues to characterize—the Aristide opposition. Lavalas supporters in Cap Haitian, a northern city near Milot that ranks second in population after Port-au-Princ e, put together a “Caravan for Justice,” to memorialize the places where people were killed and homes and institutions burned by rampaging “rebel” forces Feb. 22.
A Traumatized and Angry Witness
The airport, courts, a radio and TV station, police stat ions, a prison and a number of homes were among the charred and bullet-ridden sites where people had died. While viewing the burned-out remains of a small fleet of school buses, Lavalas supporters leading the caravan found one reluctant witness who, after some persuasion, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
His job was in the school bus yard. When rebels came and destroyed the nearby courthouse and prison, they also incinerated at least six school buses, used to pick children up in the countryside. The program instituted by local Lavalas officials had cost parents only 250 gourdes (about $7) a year.
“Now we can’t do anything,” said the man, a Lavalas supporter who went into hiding for several months after Feb. 22. “The new government doesn’t give us anything.”
This now unemployed father was at the site that day with others who were trying to see if any of the badly charred buses could be restored. “The children need to go to school,” he said, as tears began to run down his cheeks. He steppe d away from the reporters and human rights workers to recover his composure, then continued speaking, taking aim at the U.N. “They are not there for protection. Maybe they are there to protect the government.”
The day preceding the caravan, the Bay Area group met with a number of mothers and fathers whose children had been killed or who were in hiding and women whose husbands were dead or in jail. I asked many of them if they were going to seek justice from the police or the courts and without exception, people seemed to find the question bizarre. “There’s no justice, no one to go to,” said the mother of Jean Pierre Elipha, an 18-year-old killed by the rebels.
While the stories of violence, death and destruction were tragic, the group found comic relief in one Frederick B. Cook. The balding white man, always accompanied by a quiet Haitian, was first spotted taking pictures of the Bay Area group as we observed a demonstration in support of Sò Anne. That was in Port-au-Prince. Several days later at the demonstration in Cap Haitien, Cook came up to former Oakland-now-Port-au-Prince resident, filmmaker Kevin Pina and engaged him in conversation. The man, whose card indicated that he was with the State Department, was happy to talk to journalists present, but refused to talk on the record. He said his purpose in being at the demonstration was to protect our group; if anything happened to one of us, it would create a lot of paper work for him.
The last morning of our stay, the journalists and rights workers decided to do some tourism and ride horses up the mountain to the almost 200-year old Citadel, built to keep the region safe from Napoleon’s army. At the top of the steep climb, we weren’t alone with our horses and guides: there was Frederick B. Cook, his quiet companion and about two dozen Chilean U.N. forces.
And later in the day, when we took the 18-passenger plane back to Port-au-Prince, Mr. Cook and friend were in the front seats. While his omnipresence became a joke among the rights workers and journalists, it underscores the arrogant attitude our nation projects, which is in stark contrast to the Haitian warrior-heroes we met: people like Sò Anne, Jean-Charles Moise and the man at the bus yard.