A desperate homecoming

HILARY MACKENZIE February 17 1992

A desperate homecoming

HILARY MACKENZIE February 17 1992

A desperate homecoming


Letter From Haiti

Shimmering in the hazy early-morning sun, the United States Coast Guard cutter Bear eased alongside a blacktopped jetty in Port-au-Prince’s dilapidated harbor. The ship’s cargo: 250 Haitians who had tried to escape their island country’s political violence and economic despair, but who had been forcibly returned on orders of the United States government. The passengers strained against rope-mesh barricades in the ship’s stem. Then, minutes later, the men, women and children who had left Haiti’s shores in rickety boats filed down the Bear’s metal gangway past armed policemen and back into the turmoil that has raged since a military coup toppled the democratically elected government of Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept. 30. Among the reluctant homecomers was Augustine Louis, a 34-year-old carpenter from the village of Saint-Marc who had sold his tools to pay the $200 required to get to Miami.

Standing in the shelter of the whitewashed Port Authority building near a “Welcome to Haiti” sign, Louis described the fear he felt at being back.

“I am thinking about death,” he said warily as immigration officers processed the returning Haitians. “I am afraid of the military.”

Louis is not alone. Since the coup, more than 15,000 Haitians have fled from the country. Most have been rescued from the sea by U.S.

Coast Guard ships, with 10,000 of them now housed in makeshift camps on the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Many of the refugees claim to be running from political persecution or fears that they will be victims of violence should the army try to tighten its grip on the country. And concern over more political turbulence heightened last week when pro-Aristide demonstrators set tire barricades on fire in some of Port-au-Prince’s poorer neighborhoods. But other Haitians had clearly fled because the country’s economy, already one of the weakest in the world, has further suffered from an American-led economic embargo imposed on Oct. 10.

The Bush administration and its partners in the Organization of American States are trying to force Haiti’s leaders to reinstate Aristide’s government. But the sanctions have caused a breakdown

in some sectors of the island’s economy and, as a result, 40,000 workers have been laid off from manufacturing jobs. Said Michel Etienne, mayor of Petit-Goâve, a tiny fishing village 63 km southwest of Port-au-Prince: “The industries are closed and there is no work. The only thing to do is to get on a boat and go.” Added the gaunt-looking mayor: “It is the poor who pay the price of the embargo.”

Last week, Washington indicated that it would relax some of the embargo’s restrictions against selective industries. Such “finetuning,” said state department representative Margaret Tutwiler, was designed to ease the problems of Haitian workers. From exile in

Venezuela, Aristide condemned Washington’s decision to relax the sanctions, arguing that the move will bolster the army and its hardline civilian supporters. But Washington’s action was also clearly designed to try to stanch the flow of Haitians headed for the southern U.S. coast. Worried that waves of refugees might cause a political backlash during the recession, members of the U.S. administration insisted that the Haitians were trying to escape poverty, not persecution, and that they were not eligible for asylum.

On Feb. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the administration’s description of the influx of refugees as a national emergency and allowed the forced repatriation of the Haitians to begin. That move drew swift condemnation by several human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which described the policy as a moral outrage.

But within two days of the court’s ruling, the first two coast guard boatloads, carrying 381 refugees, crossed the 200-mile Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti and, after their voyage, docked in Port-auPrince at a marine terminal once used by Caribbean cruise ships. Immigration officials screened the returnees, police fingerprinted them and then passed them on to the Red Cross, which gave them the equivalent of $17 and yellow ration cards entitling them to rice, beans and milk after they returned to their homes. The cutters continued to dock intermittently through the week.

Augustine Louis, dressed in a shiny khaki shirt and green cotton 2

pants, clutched what he said was all that remained of his worldly possessions: a diary, two Bibles, an army-issue cot cover, tom underwear and crumpled black jeans, two packages of com chips and some expired Meals Ready to Eat left over from American supplies in the Persian Gulf. But as he waited for the chunky yellow bus that would ferry him back to Saint-Marc, he insisted that it was Haiti’s violence, not hard times, that had driven him to try the dangerous passage. “I was scared, that’s why I left,” said Louis. “Now, I don’t know what will happen when I go back home.”

As the bus bounced over the potholed road that wound north along Haiti’s seacoast on the P/i-hour ride home, Louis recalled the events chat led him to leave the country on Nov. 22. “The military were asking for me and I didn’t want them to come to my house and take me,” he said. Imitating the rapid fire of a machine-gun spraying bullets into a crowd of people, Louis said that the military had fired randomly into houses where they suspected that young Aristide supporters lived. “Every night, the military shot their M-16s and their M-45s into the air and into houses,” he said. “I didn’t want to die by shooting. I would prefer to die in the sea and take my chance.”

As a result, Louis and 133 others set sail for Miami on a 27-foot boat nicknamed “Trust in God.” Louis said they lived on fried meat, bread and rice and sang Spanish and Creole songs to keep their spirits up, especially after high winds caused the boat to take on water. He said that hopes rose even further when a coast guard cutter picked them up on their third day at sea. But rather than arriving in Miami, as they expected, the refugees were taken to Guantánamo Bay. Said Louis: “They poured gasoline over our clothes, provisions and set fire to the boat.” On the base, housed either in tents, on ships or in an aircraft hangar, hope for building a new life faded. “In Guantánamo, I felt 10

times as bad as I had before,” said Louis. “The American authorities told us, ‘We don’t need more Haitians.’ ” Now, said Louis sadly, “I don’t believe in America anymore.”

Marthe Germain echoed Louis’s bitterness. The 23-year-old receptionist from Arcahaie, 45 km northwest of Port-au-Prince, also said that she sought to leave the violence behind. “They were shooting people in Arcahaie and I didn’t want to die by bullets,” said Germain. “I thought in Miami there would be more security.” But American officials shipped her back to Haiti after she had spent three months in Guantánamo Bay. Back at her father’s home in a slum area of Port-au-Prince where streets are lined with piles of rotting garbage, Germain expressed anger towards the United States. “Americans are denying us our liberty,” she said. Standing inside the family’s concrete-block house under a brightly colored wall-hanging of the Last Supper, Germain’s father, Alberson, 63, said that he feared that the military might seek to punish the returning refugees. “It is possible they will come in and shoot,” he said, “because they are crazy.”

As a result of the political uncertainty and Haiti’s endemic poverty, family members greeted the returning refugees with mixed emotions. Indeed, when Louis arrived at his dirt-floor two-room home on a scrubby hillside in Saint-Marc, his sister Shaylea admitted that her “heart was heavy” during his absence. But Marciana Josef, Louis’s 60-year-old mother, said she was sorry that Louis’s perilous attempt to reach America had failed. “There is nothing for him here,” she said with a wrinkled smile. “I thought he had found a new life.” For now, the latest refugees from Haiti's violent and poor conditions will have to settle for the old ways.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Port-au-Prince