Haiti Brief

Almost 10 years have passed and Jean-Bertrand Aristide has failed to improve the lot of the Haitian people who trusted him so completely in 1994. A political crisis stemming from the flawed elections of 2000 has spurred bloody rebellion and Aristide finds himself in the Central African Republic, deposed for the second time. Aristide claims that the US forced him out, violating Haiti’s fragile constitution. The circumstances of his exile are indeed murky and demand independent investigation. TV pundits seem fond of quoting an old Haitian proverb: ‘[t]he Constitution is made of paper; the bayonet is made of steel.’ As I pursue the reports I recall my experience in Haiti during the events of 1994. 

Waiting for the Americans

September 10, 1994

A Dutch colleague, Ton V., calls to see if I am available for a gig in Haiti. Yes, I say, without asking any questions. I’ve recently returned from the first free elections in South Africa. After the exhilaration of that tumultuous event I found out that my mother was seriously ill in neighboring Zimbabwe. A brief visit home confirmed what my siblings had begun to suspect, Parkinson’s disease and possibly Alzheimer’s. I’m not good at this stuff. I have to keep myself busy.

September 15, 1994

1030 hours. JFK. Meet up with Tim C. the cinematographer, before boarding. A florid, stubby chap; he sports a rose-colored buttoned-down shirt and a languid smile—a New Yorker disguised as a Californian. Together we root out Stephan S. in the boarding area. He’s our German director, probably in his late thirties, a lean man with Michael Rennie cheekbones. He’s friendly but distracted, seems concerned about our visa entry at the Haitian-Dominican border. Our brief is to cover the United States’ invasion of Haiti for a German TV Company, to produce a daily story for satellite transmission to Europe, and also to shoot and edit material for a 24-minute documentary. Over the next seven days I’m to be field sound recordist and video editor.

1745 hours. Hotel Santa Domingo. At supper Stephan, Tim and I plan getting to the Haitian-Dominican border tomorrow. Stephan has a contact to get us there. Two Haitian travel agencies have been meeting journalists and TV crews at the border and bussing them to Port-au-Prince. We discuss the Haiti situation and Bill Clinton’s decision to disregard Congress and stop the terrible Human Rights violations that take place in Haiti daily. Stephan believes that Clinton’s motives (like those of Bush before him) have more to do with stopping the illegal outpouring of ‘Boat People’ into the U.S. I share his skepticism. Looking at the U.S. record of involvement in Third World countries it’s apparent that any protestations of ‘the pursuit of Democracy’ are suspect.

Later, in Stephan’s hotel room, we watch the news on Television. President Clinton makes firm his promise to invade Haiti. He doesn’t say when. We guess at Saturday and hope we’ll be in time.

Before the Clinton speech is over, Stephan receives a visitor. It’s the contact: Max. He’s Swiss, a charming entrepreneur, and full of advice, some chilling: ‘…if you hit someone in Haiti in your vehicle — on no account stop — you will be killed. There are always old tires lying around,’ he radiates smiling mischief, ‘gasoline, you know.’ He’s referring to ‘Père Lebrun’, ‘the necklace,’ (a popular chastisement in South Africa too). A car tire is filled with gasoline, wedged around the victim’s neck then set alight. The three of us listen quietly. We are obviously nervous, which encourages Max. He has the look of a satyr, bristling dark eyebrows and a silver goatee. ‘Watch out for crowd situations, keep your eye on your exits. It can get dangerous. The Haitians are not like the Dominicans. They can suddenly turn on you.’

In 1804 Haiti became the first independent black republic. It would have been the first independent black democracy if Western governments had not refused Haitian imports. Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. President, was fundamentally opposed to the idea of blacks running their own country. He called Louverture, one of the Haitian leaders, a cannibal. Despite exploiting the successful revolt to pressure France into selling Louisiana (the Louisiana purchase), Jefferson successfully persuaded the American Congress to end Haitian imports, yet American merchants would still be allowed to export to Haiti. Nevertheless, the new republic was to remain without a foreign master until the U.S marines occupied it from 1915 to 1934.

The Dominican Republic in the east and Haiti in the west share the island of Hispaniola. Haiti, ‘shaped like the two roots of a molar,’ (I’m not sure who said it but it is a perfect description) covers a third of the Island, an area of ten thousand, seven hundred and fourteen miles. It ‘s people number seven million, most impoverished, and most-about 70 percent-subsistence farmers in the countryside.

Max was in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, for many years, working for an international aid organization. Now he has settled in Santa Domingo with his wife and three children. His accent is odd. German, with an odd ‘island’ lilt to it. ‘You’ll find unbelievable racism in Haitian society,’ says Max. ‘The mulatto élite, who are almost white, refers to itself as ‘Negro’, one stratum down and a couple of shades darker is ‘Negro-Negro.’ The very black skinned who constitute the poor masses are called ‘Negro-Negro-Negro’. Of course the mulatto élite are hand in glove with the junta—these privileged few do nothing for the poor.’ ‘Naturally, the U.S. traditionally supports the wealthy mulatto élite. You understand? The alliance is mutually and economically beneficial.’ His anger is barely concealed behind the ever-present smile. Max, seeing we are uncomfortable, spends the rest of the evening, giving advice on how to bribe the petty officials we are about to encounter along the way.

September 16, 1994

1030 hours. We start for the border. The hotel manager, another of Stephan’s contacts, has supplied a van and driver. The four-hour journey is bumpy. I make my sound gear serviceable and easy to assemble for shooting on the run. Tim dozes in the front seat next to the driver, his Ikegami cradled in his lap. The landscape is flat, dotted with scrubby bushes and aloes. Soil color changes from red clay to gray to chalk. Most of the rivers are dry or reduced to a chalky trickle. We follow a single stretch of telegraph wire for miles, occasionally happening upon shantytowns. In every town kids with distended bellies swarm the streets. In every town a woman squats on the stoop of a caille (a thatched hut) holding a naked baby. It’s an image that lingers—there is something so surrendered about these women sitting in the heat.

We are an hour from the border when Stephan delicately mentions that he has three bulletproof vests in his baggage. ‘I think we should take every conceivable precaution.’ ‘Oh sure.’ I agree, sort of relieved but apprehensive. Tim says nothing. There are longer silences now. Black-edged clouds bank up on the horizon in readiness for the afternoon shower.

1530 hours. We traverse some salt flats, skirt a grim, metallic lake and suddenly we are at the Dominican Haitian border. Jimani, the border post is a low shack with a couple of fig trees shading the doorways. Beyond the shack two guards patrol a pair of heavy gates in a high chain-link fence. On the Haitian side more guards, a quarrelsome gang of porters, and an old woman selling fruit. She sits still, watching everything, legs stretched out before her, hands in her lap, paw-paws and lemons on a dingy cloth beside her.

On the Dominican side, chickens and goats mingle with a knot of ‘journos’ and their gear. Two Red-Berets, Canadian soldiers, oversee events with good humor. They are part of the International Observer Corps. Haiti is under embargo and they must scrutinize all movement across the border.

It ‘s hot as Hades. ZDF (the German public TV network) and ABC TV Units roll in with a convoy of gear. We get through the Dominican customs formalities easily, but unless the bus from the Citadel Tourist Agency arrives with our names on its list, we will be driving back to Santa Domingo tonight. At five-thirty in the evening the first bus arrives and a suave young man alights with a sheaf of documents. Clamoring journos immediately beset him. Stephan elbows his way in to discover that a company called Chatelaine has taken over from Citadel and our names are not on their list—but will be tomorrow.

Disappointed, we stand at the chain-link fence that separates us from the buses on the Haitian side. A scuffle breaks out-angry yells and threatening gestures. A CBS chap is backing away from an ugly crowd. They want money for carrying the mountains of gear across the line. Bad vibes until dollars change hands. Stephan hovers awhile, anxious, because if we don’t get across tomorrow either we might miss the invasion altogether. It’s Friday and he is convinced the Americans will invade on Saturday night. But we have no choice, we have to stay in Dominica another night and try again in the morning.

We give a ride to Jeff, a beefy NBC camera operator. An old-timer. He wasn’t on the list either. He natters on about how he spent three ‘dull’ weeks in Haiti during the ‘Cuba event.’ He’s back again to cover the ‘invasion’. He, like Max, is full of advice: ‘when the invasion starts, don’t leave your hotel at night during the curfew—don’t risk it. Where are you staying by the way? Holiday Inn? Good. You’re right in the thick of things. The military HQ is a block away and the Presidential Palace opposite. Wait until it’s light and the attack is over because there will definitely be some killing. Try not to be on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn. That’s the first place the Tontons Macoute will head for to take out a few whiteys. You got bulletproof vests? Good. Wear them. Go into the bathroom, barricade it with mattresses and furniture-whatever’s to hand and get into the shower cubicle—it’s got three walls. Lie flat on the deck until it’s all over.’ We are listening hard. Flies buzz over our already rotting corpses. Thanks Jeff. We book into a small family inn. Cold water only. Overhead fan, noisy but effective. It vies with a rattling air conditioner.

September 17, 1994

I wake at 5.30 and brave a cold shower. Stephan looks ashen this morning. He’d been dreaming, he said, about a volcano blasting off. 0830 hours. Back at Jimani. A hellish day! A day that erupts with combustible anger as two or three gangs of porters compete for the baggage that arrives without end. The traffic bumps and grinds all day, network after network, affiliate after affiliate, and the many lesser outfits and individuals who check in with generators, lights, cameras and editing gear. Dominican porters bear the equipment across a wasteland of broken beer bottles and plastic to the dank shed that interrupts the border fence. Here Haitian porters take over the carrying. Each gang has a ‘heavy’ who bullies and cajoles money out of the hapless, incoming crews. Five dollars for each porter, and the stewards try to include as many hands as they can get away with. As the heat intensifies many fights break out Oddly, no one is hurt.

At last – two Chatelaine buses. Yes, our names are on the list! We have endured eight hours of the awful heat and racket. Stefan pays a tidy fortune to four porters to get our gear onto a van marked ‘Florida Fruit’ and we scramble onto the bus next to it. Another hour passes before we’re off. There is a customs stop, a head count, several checkpoints and a precipitate sunset. Now we’re into curfew. That means stopping at a military post to pick up a pass. Another hour and a half. A whisper passes amongst the ranks. A Finnish crew of two is hiding beneath the seats of one of the coaches. Some people are disgruntled by the information. If the Finns get caught it could be bad for all of us. They do not get caught, thank God. When, at last, we drive into Port-au-Prince, it is midnight.

The Chatelaines bustle around us. It appears that they played a part in getting the Finnish crew across, probably bribed the border guards who searched the buses. M. Chatelaine is a ‘Negro’ mulatto, pale, sophisticated in that Parisian way and wears just enough gold jewelry, a signet ring and a fine wrist chain that catches the light. Mme. Chatelaine is ‘Negro-Negro’, I would guess—a shade or two darker than her husband. They have two charming sons. One is Pippo, the suave young man with the list. He displays much care around his clients, giving each his full attention. He’s softening us for a bombshell: each traveler must pay five hundred dollars cash. That’s the price for crossing the border. M. Chatelaine explains in his soft voice that he’s had to grease many palms along the way and the fee is not at all excessive. There is some grumbling among the journalists and crews but they’re tired and fork up. Some wag nicknames the Chatelaines the ‘Charlatans’ and the name sticks.

Stephan, Tim and I wait for the Florida Fruit van with our equipment. Someone says it has been held at a checkpoint and will be along later. We decide to head for the Holiday Inn that is just a few blocks away. Of course we are nervous. It’s curfew time and the streets are dark and ominously quiet. Eric, a minion of the Chatelaines, comes to our rescue. He’s a flashy operator with excellent English. He leads us down several alleys until a police truck flashes its headlights at us. Eric speaks quickly in Creole to the suspicious officers — two of them — and they offer us a lift to the Holiday Inn. I am full of trepidation. I’ve read Graham Greene. But Stephan and Tim seem unconcerned so I follow like a lamb. The cops do drop us off at the Holiday Inn but alas, our reservations have not been confirmed. After a dust-up with the hotel manager, Eric suggests The Park Hotel. It’s much cheaper and right next door to the Holiday Inn.

The Park Hotel is straight out of Graham Greene! French colonial, dilapidated, a large verandah cluttered with plant life and wickerwork. A yellowy light pervades, barely enough to see by. Inside, two adjoining rooms with high ceilings and overhead fans that are not working make up the reception and lounge. M. Assad, the owner, is quick to warn us that there will be power failures — ‘you’ll need a candle’ — and cold water. M. Assad seems reluctant to have us stay. His wife, Elsie, shuts him up. She can see we don’t give a shit about candles and cold water—we’re too exhausted. I remember that we didn’t get breakfast and there was no chance to get a snack along the way. No caffeine. No wonder I have a splitting headache. Monsieur Assad leads us through an archway of magnificent purple bougainvillea, into a run-down quadrangular garden around an empty swimming pool. My first reaction is terror. What a perfect pit in which to throw bodies: the Americans invade tonight. The Tontons Macoute, now the Attachés, storm the hotel to machine gun whiteys. It is a last ditch revenge effort. They toss our bleeding corpses into the Graham Greene swimming pool before the American paratroopers can get to us.

My room is bare but for a flimsy bed and a lightweight dresser. No chair, no table. No lock on the door, just a hook and eye. The hinges will never hold up against the boots of the Attachés. There is only one wall to the shower-dirty plastic curtains make up the other three.

Our duties are not yet done. We must sneak back to the Chatelaines and see if the truck with our gear has arrived. Is it safe? Eric, who is still waiting in the lobby hoping to be hired as interpreter, assures us it will be OK. Outside the Hotel he yells at a couple of street urchins to accompany us. Tim escapes to the Holiday Inn to make phone calls. Stephan and I break the curfew again, not because we’re reckless or unafraid, but because we are past caring.

The truck has been and gone in our absence! The bloody last straw. Nobody quite knows where. It’s all too much. We will have to deal with it in the morning. The Chatelaine’s driver walks us back to the Park Hotel. The power is out now and back in my room I light a candle. I cannot bear to wash. Anyway the water is cold. And the fans don’t work. And there are mosquitoes. Not to mention ‘the invasion.’ I collapse into a deep sleep. The loud report of a gun. The other side of my bedroom wall reverberates. I’m sitting up, stark awake, heart banging against my ribs. The candle is guttering, I forgot to blow it out. Glance at my wristwatch: three o’clock in the morning. Shit. The Invasion. I try to get up but I’m paralyzed. Listen for sounds — anything — try to quell the thud of jackboots inside my rib cage. I hear nothing else. Outside there is a stillness dense with white noise. I don’t know how many moments pass before I can move again. I blow the candle out. It’s a pathetic gesture but I feel safer in darkness. ‘They’ might not find me. I pray that Tim and Stephan will come looking for me. But they do not. I have a flash from my childhood. I am eight years old. In Sunday school, I change into John Jay Ferris, the boy with the lolling head. I’m in his wheelchair near the window, head hanging backwards as always; my eyes stare out at the blue, free, sky. I lie awake until first light, until I know I am safe.

September 18, 1994

When the three of us meet for breakfast at the Holiday Inn we decide to get out of ‘the thick of things,’ to head up the hill to Petionville and the relative safety of the suburbs. We shall be nearer to our satellite feed point, we tell each other. Eventually we break down, confessing in turn that the nocturnal gunshot was far too close for comfort.

A CBS Radio reporter comes up to us. ‘Did you hear? They found a body in the Park near the Palace. An execution apparently.’ He tells us that ex-President Jimmy Carter is coming to parlay with Brigadier General Raoul Cédras, the army head who ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1991 coup d’état. So that’s why the Americans didn’t invade last night. Nor will they until the Carter/Cédras meeting has taken place. Jubilant, we head on up the hill to find our gear and a new Hotel.

The Hotel Christophe has a secluded location with a good view of the bay. Again the electricity is unreliable: no air conditioning and no water for several hours a day. Eric comes to visit. NBC has hired him but he’s found us Billy, another ‘interpreter-come-fixer.’ Billy learned his English from American missionaries. He’s a good-natured fellow, in his fifties, with gaps between his teeth and long curling eyelashes that fill me with envy. Each day he arrives with a different car and driver because there is always some hassle with the car and/or driver of the day before.

Our first news event. Jimmy Carter’s arrival. It’s too bloody hot to wear my bulletproof vest so I don’t. I’m a menopausal woman and hot flashes in temps of ninety degrees are my first concern. Anyway, Carter’s here.

We rattle along with Billy in a rusted station wagon to the Military H/Q in downtown Port-au-Prince. Next door is the Presidential Palace, a plain, white, two story edifice with a long frontal upstairs balcony. Carter is already inside with Cédras and his generals. Excitement ripples through the large and vociferous crowd that has gathered—notably a bunch of holy rollers halleluja-ing on top of a truck. Between verses their leader shrieks out gobbledygook scripture through a megaphone. A group of pro-Aristide supporters grows bolder, runs through the crowd, wielding branches and shouting slogans. The police and attachés observe them with silent malevolence. There’s much jostling in the crowd. I’m attached to Tim’s camera and must keep up with him so I try to anticipate his every move. Feel like a clumsy mountaineer, hung with audio cables and gear. It is hot — I mean scorching — and with my headset on, the sweat burns in my eyes, runs in rivers down my face and neck. I keep thinking that I feel fingers, hands lightly touching me — pickpockets I imagine — checking me out in the pressing humanity.

We try for vox pops interviews. Billy is invaluable, posing our questions in Creole. Most of our candidates are jittery, looking about them for spies. Some refuse to answer at all. But others don’t give a jot. One large woman howls her hatred for the Americans. She has unblinking eyes under a livid orange bandana in a coil on her head. She is a mambo, a voodoo woman. She says she has put an ouanga (a hex) on the U.S. soldiers. The skin is going to explode off their bodies if they set foot in this country. The crowd around her falls back in awe. Billy is respectful of such dire prophecy; he whispers ‘she say when the skin fly off—they will be jus’ red like meat, the blood will fall out on the ground and they will dry up in the sun into dust.’ Stephan is elated. He tells Billy, ‘ask her if we can visit a voodoo ceremony.’ Stephan is thinking of his 24 minute documentary.

We don’t wait to see Carter or Cédras. We head back to the El Rancho Hotel which houses the European Broadcasting feed point and Stefan files a sidebar.

After supper Tim and Stephan decide to go carousing with a bunch of journos. I retire early to read Diedrich and Burt’s excellent book Papa Doc, Haiti and its Dictator. Graham Greene writes the Forward:

There is something peculiarly Roman in the air of Haiti: Roman in its cruelty, in its corruption and its heroism. You will not walk far in any Haitian town without seeing the names of Brutus and Cato, perhaps over a baker’s shop or a garage. The auguries are still told in the entrails of beasts, and a senator will sometime take his life in his hands by a declaration against tyranny, like Moreau who spoke up in the Senate against the special powers demanded by Duvalier and paid the extreme penalty (so far as anyone knows). We are nearer to the Europe of Nero and Tiberius than to the Africa of Nkrumah.

Greene knows how to turn your blood to ice. I discover the origin of the notorious Tontons Macoute. In this superstitious culture, bogeyman tales abound. They center on a terrible giant ‘who stuffs bad little boys and girls into his knapsack or ‘macoute’. He is ‘Uncle Knapsack’ or ‘Tonton Macoute‘.

When the electricity fails at midnight in the Hotel Christophe, I lie mesmerized by the shadows in the shifting net curtains at my window. I listen to the cicadas awhile; then I hear something else, an eerie wailing in the valley. Common sense tells me it is just some villagers singing or chanting but my head is full of voodoo and it is ages before I can fall asleep.

September 19, 1994

0830 hours. We look up Bobby H. He came to Haiti from Brooklyn in 1985. I’ve no doubt his former friends would call him a ‘Jesus freak’. In fact I question my own motives in referring to him as such. Tim, our cameraman, got hold of his name and number-through a quirky meeting in a New York bar with one of Bobby’s former drinking companions.

Bobby used to be a rich accountant in New York City. A hard drinker, big spender, and womanizer. Now he owns nothing nor wants to. He still drinks some, likes women some—but he’s found God.

He serves in the St Vincent’s Home for the Handicapped and Under-privileged at 75 Rélantement in downtown Port-au-Prince opposite the prison. He is adored. A couple of young lads hang around his neck, literally. He calls himself a glorified ‘super’ and shakes an impressive bunch of keys to prove it. He does everything from mending crutches, to pulling teeth, to helping wash the old men at Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying. Last week he assisted a hip replacement surgery on a kid with scoliosis.

He looks like a sixties hippie but he’s not old enough — late thirties I would guess — sports shoulder length hair, spouts the jargon, affixes ‘man’ to every sentence. He is charismatic, funny. And fearless. He’s sent his orphans away to safety. He’s going to stay behind to protect St Vincent’s property. ‘It’s the only home these kids have.’

What will happen if the Americans invade? He’s in the heart of Tontons Macoute territory. The orphanage shares a block with the prison and the military H/Q is just around the corner. Isn’t he afraid? ‘Sure—’ but his eyes shine like a lover’s— ‘So what?’

Shouldn’t he get out? He smiles, shrugs. ‘This is my life, man. These are my people. I love them. They got guts, man, and they got nothing! I learn so much from them. I’ll never leave them. What? Are you kidding?’

Midday. The Americans land. From the Hotel Christophe we spot the aircraft carrier U.S. America moving slowly in the bay. The menacing drone of helicopters assaults the heavens, minutes before we see them. First, reconnaissance Cobras circling high, followed by squadrons of attack Apaches, their mosquito shapes sweeping steadily lower to get folk used to their presence. The sight and sound of the helicopters continue right through the night. We are not to forget for a moment that the Americans are here. The buzz of helicopters, near and distant, becomes a sound as present and predictable as the dawning of each new day, the sound I most associate with this sojourn in Haiti; it dissolves in and out of the familiar calls of crickets and birds and the grumbling thunder. It accompanies the laughter of the El Rancho waiters, chatter of the cleaning women, chanting from the valley and even the customary gunshots. It is purposely, deliberately, omnipresent.

September 20, 1994

Carter clinched a deal. General Raoul Cédras will complete his term of office (15th October 1994) and leave the country with his military entourage. He will be guaranteed safe conduct and a rich haven somewhere, maybe Panama. The exiled Aristide will return on October 30th and the country will have another bash at democratic rule. Meantime the Americans will now peacefully ‘occupy’ Haiti like overseers or policemen. They’ll stay until United Nations forces replace them. For two nights after the occupation gunshots ring out whether in defiance or celebration it is hard to tell. And joyous singing floats up from the slums in the valley below the Hotel Christophe, all night long, each night of our stay.

September 22, 1994

An interview with Mireille Durocher Bertin. She’s an ambitious lawyer with great energy, money and influence. Mme. Bertin keeps a variety of slave chains in her sumptuous garden on Pétionville. I am appalled at the weight and size of these grim reminders. Mme. Bertin slips a pretty ankle into a gruesome, rusted shackle and a wrist inside another. The effect is shocking (she knows it) and incongruous, because she is elegantly gowned and appears so fragile.

She plans to run against Aristide whom she detests and labels an anarchist and a ‘killer’. She claims he has exploited the class division. Her English is smooth, her voice, melodious. She is charmingly anti American, but she means business. She has trained her children to despise Americans. She does not want them to forget that the last time the Americans invaded Haiti they stayed for twenty-four years. She agrees that many of the past governments were incompetent. Mme. Bertin seems fearless in her resolve to help her country. She says she is not pro-Cédras—she is simply ‘anti-American intervention.’ But she is a member of the mulatto élite that has a history of racism.

People start to relax and welcome the occupiers. The Aristide supporters are particularly vociferous. They’re from the poorest ghettos, like Cité Soleil, a behemoth of a slum, worse than anything I have seen in Asia or Africa. Nothing in Calcutta could have prepared us for this. The stench! Open sewers under the sun. The smell of decaying flesh. It must be a blessing not to survive in this hellhole. Creatures die so readily. Sacking, rippled tin and cardboard are the materials of these appalling ‘dwellings’. What happens when the summer storms unleash their load?

Tim shoots inside the shack of three prostitutes. They don’t demur; they murmur and smile at him with dead, glazed eyes. All three have the AIDS look. They are ghastly-worn, emaciated, dying. On the corrugated walls of their dwelling they have pasted magazine pictures of glamorous white models. A tin tray on the floor holds several old plastic tumblers-refreshments for clients.

In another shack lives an old woman so poor that all she owns is the old jupe and cardigan she is wearing. There is absolutely nothing in her shack: not a rag nor plate nor utensil; just the mud of the floor and light breaking through the holes and cracks in the cardboard walls. She stiffens and poses for the camera, doesn’t know whether she should smile. Her face is so withered, so defined by pain it makes me weep.

We leave. Around a corner children come running up to us, energetic, laughing, curious. Another bend and we come upon a group of men sitting round a box, playing dominoes. The men don’t seem to have a care in the world. Do they believe their salvation is at hand? Or are they past worrying about who is in charge? Running water and electricity, food and shelter are the basics that they need desperately. A U.S. Government assessment described Haiti as: ‘…the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world… unemployment: fifty percent… infant mortality: one hundred and one per one thousand… life expectancy: 56 years.’ Cold understatement.

September 23, 1994

Billy has organized a visit to a voodoo ceremony. ‘But first I take you see the Bocor (witch doctor).’ Stephan describes the scene roughly to me later (I did not make this trip with the crew. I had to stay behind and log videotapes in preparation for the 24 minute documentary): ‘…he’s a youngish fellow—a real con-artist. Operates out of this caille [hut] full of disgusting things in bottles and crucibles. There were devilish pictures painted on the floor and walls, skulls and skins all over the place. He told me his payment was fifty dollars so I forked up. Right off he driveled on in gibberish and went into a trance, or so he pretended, and while he was in this trance he told me he was no longer a Bocor but a spirit and the spirit had to be paid too. I had to cough up another fifty bucks.’

The editing begins. I’ve short-listed almost all the tapes—about 12 hours’ worth. I’m starting ‘out of sequence’ as the opening hasn’t been shot yet.

We edit the 24-minute story through the night. Stephan writes his ‘text’.

At one-thirty in the morning, Christianne, the WTN (World TV News) coordinator, rushes in to tell us that violence has broken out in Cap Haitien. Possibly nine people have been killed. Somebody picked up the news on an army scanner. It’s our last night in Port-au-Prince and we can barely take it in. As we get on with the business at hand we hear the frenetic commotion of journalists and crews organizing to cover this, the latest happening.

At five thirty in the morning we record Stephan’s narration and mix it with natural sounds. EBU feeds it via satellite to Germany. It is all over. Exhausted after the agitation we go back to the Hotel Christophe to pack. I get into a row with Ramon, the receptionist, about some lost laundry. At last we are driving for the airport. It is 8:00 AM. I’m spaced out with fatigue; I think I see a monstrous dragonfly alight on a bougainvillea tree but it’s only a helicopter floating by.

We fly back to Miami on a Transport C130. Nothing else is available. The young soldiers who accompany us hand out earplugs and MRE’s (meals ready to eat). I slump back into the webbing seat in the center of the Transport. My vision mists over, a drone comforts my ears, a considerate soldier is fastening my seat belt for me but I’m already into sleep.


Titid Comes Home

October 2nd 1994.

Back to Haiti. EBU (European Broadcasting Union) can use my services for Aristide’s return. Stewart, one of the video editors is burned out and has already departed, right in the middle of the work. There’s been violence, killing, looting. Things look bad and of course newsworthy.

I plead for a couple of days in New York to get my affairs in order. It is reluctantly given. I speak to my sister in Bulawayo. My mother is worse; she is bed-ridden and she is no longer speaking. I have to go home as soon as possible. I’ll be home before Christmas I promise my sister.

October 3rd, 1994

I’m staying at El Rancho, the hotel where most of the media are established due to the proximity and convenience of the satellite feed points. It is a very different experience this time; I have time on my hands. The violence and looting have subsided. Nothing to edit for the first three days. I read in my room, type a few notes, sunbathe, swim and pop in and out of the edit bay.

Poolside. I drift in a sunlit sleep with the familiar hum of helicopters. Suddenly I hear a harsh scraping noise. I open my eyes to a pretty young Haitian woman hauling a chair up to my table. ‘You are a girl?’ she asks. Girl. How lovely. Thirty years melt away in sleepy accord. I’m used to the question. I have worn a near crew-cut since I was twelve. Ever since I wanted to be Marlon Brando as Marc Antony in the 1953 Joseph Mankiewiecz version of Julius Caesar. The woman smiles and settles down in the shade, under the umbrella. I’ve seen her before. She’s an operator, high class, well dressed. I saw her work the bar the last time I was here at El Rancho. Her name is Claudine. She is one of a bevy of beautiful prostitutes that hangs around the pool. ‘You speak French? Spanish?’ she asks. I am non-committal, embarrassed now. What on earth does she want? ‘Non-pas du tout. Non je ne parle pas bien le francais ni espagnol.’ I say gruffly and bury myself in the New York Times. She’s persistent and very flirtatious. She engages me in a discussion about ‘Haitian Art’ (about which I know nothing) and makes an appointment to show me some canvases. Why am I so awkward around this woman? Because of who or what I think she is? I hate feeling so superior. That’s the trouble with having nothing to do; you indulge in self -examination. I have to admit that I am attracted to her. I resist the urge to act out. I know she would accommodate me.

My status and my gender are troubling to me. How do I perceive myself in this context? Every day I get to view material that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. We are ‘the media’ investigators, snoops; through our eyes ‘they’ are presented to the outside world; their poverty and ignorance and innocence are reported for personal and political expedience. The visuals are not too subtle. Every day I look at footage of demonstrations and celebrations. Why do cameramen always have to shoot women as sex objects? The camera lingers on their thighs, buttocks, breasts; they are seldom interviewed or taken seriously. What hypocrisy: to report the plight of women here in Haiti with our words and demean them with our images. It says more about the prevailing social conditioning of the visiting cultures than it does about the residents. I’m the biggest hypocrite of all; I fall in with it and I’m a woman. Feminists would label me ‘male identified’.

October 5th, 1994

Good news. Stephan S. is coming out again too. Terrific. I really like to work with him. He asks me to book him a room at El Rancho. Rooms here are gold. Reporters will not give them up. They leave but continue to pay for them until they or a colleague returns.

Linh O., our coordinator, is a shrewd young Chinese-Vietnamese woman who grew up in Germany. She speaks several languages fluently and is a natural leader. She has been in Haiti for three months to date. Linh describes being at the Hotel El Rancho as living in a ‘golden cage’. One exists in a privileged, gleaming paradise but it’s illusory; one cannot leave because of ‘being on call’, and even if one could, it is still dangerous; there are snipers about; things happen. I know what she means. Reality floats out of reach. I lie by the pool and think about Claudine. I did not keep my appointment with her. She hasn’t been around the hotel in days—nor have the other girls. I wonder if the hotel manager has banished them. The present feels unbearable for all the sunlight. I observe my colleagues through a similar lens. They become listless, grumpy, bored, get drunk whenever they can. Hangovers worsen the condition. Liaisons begin and end. New restaurants, new experiences are sought. Some journalists become rundown and ill and maneuver to return home early.

October 8th/9th, 1994

Incoming news gives us sketchy accounts of Saddam Hussein’s troops on the move again towards the Kuwaiti border. The emphasis shifts dramatically. The 100 odd journalists due in from Washington DC have cancelled. The focus is now the Middle East. News from Haiti is old hat. Cédras, holed up in his home up the hill in Pétionville, keeps the media on 24 hour stakeout. When will he leave? How many more sidebars are there? You can follow the U.S. soldiers around as they search for weapons or go on rural sortie. You can follow up reprisal stories, the beating up of an attaché, or the finding of another dead body. Eventually even the saddest, most somber slum story palls. What an indictment of the times. The news business reduces you to jaded and unfeeling pulp. How on earth can one justify one’s existence searching for ‘high after high’? There is always the empty aftermath, the come-down after every event.

Cédras officially resigns. The crowds outside the military H/Q are jubilant. The mob brings him a suitcase, jeers at him, and stones his car as he departs.

October 14th, 1994

Cédras drags it out to the last and leaves Haiti just before sun-up. The worn-out, waiting press corps record his flight. A battery of lights follows every ignominious footfall onto the aircraft that will take him and his family to Panama.

Back at the feed point, Linh’s Haitian driver Shintock tells a horrifying story. He has heard that Cédras, just before he left, ordered the murder of 52 prisoners in the Pénitentiare in downtown Port-au-Prince. This rumor is not confirmed but I guess it reveals the fearful awe that ordinary Haitians have for the tyrant Cédras. Folk Art appears on every whitewashed wall welcoming Jean Bertrand Aristide, the ‘Father’. He is also depicted as Hero, Teacher, Soldier, Saint, Priest and Forgiver.

There are many ‘Manifestations’—spontaneous demonstrations. The symbol of the rooster and the word Titid, the affectionate term for Aristide, is displayed everywhere. Effigies and lovingly constructed models are proudly borne aloft. One ingenious model is Bato zap zap. It features a huge battleship with Aristide in military rig hanging out of the wheelhouse.

A fervor overtakes the people. They want to change everything. They take their cue from the U.S. troops to clean out the old and start again. Brigades of women sing and wield birch brooms. Even the streets of the stinking Cité Soleil are no obstacle. The days and nights are filled with frenetic sounds from the oddest assortment of home-made instruments. Optimism reigns supreme. Americans hand out T-shirts and bandanas in a feast of propaganda.

I finish a long edit for NOS, Dutch TV, working into the early hours of the morning on the morning of Aristide’s return. Walking back to my room in a thin moonlight I see the shape of a man against the night sky between the restaurant block and the bungalows. At first I think it a statue it appears so still. I’m almost upon it when it splits into two heads. They’re not touching. The second head belongs to a Haitian woman. She’s not looking at the man. She’s looking right at me. The man doesn’t see me. He is leaning forward concentrating. He’s thrust his right hand inside the waistband of her white panties—that’s all she is wearing. She is looking at me, a brazen, knowing look. Claudine. Telling me I’m no different. I’m filled with shame and anger all at the same time. The man — I get a glimpse of his profile — is a European journalist I’ve seen around. He’s pulling down his shorts with his free hand. I make myself invisible and pass by.

In my room I’m furious. It is as if I am ravishing Claudine. I feel as if I’ve joined the enemy. It’s a sobering moment, the perfect metaphor for the exploitation of the country. Everything I know about Haiti is hearsay, is suspect, the brutality, the poverty, the disease, the ignorance and voodoo sacrifice, all these elements exist but the way they are ‘interpreted’, written about, and used to conceal the truth or to manipulate public opinion disturbs me. My own conditioning, my personal prejudices have made it so easy for me to conveniently accept without question. It has been so easy to point at the violence and despair and blame the victim with the racism of condescension.

October 15, 1994

At last. The father returns to his people. It goes according to plan, thank God. Helicopters land in the Palace gardens one after another. Crowds do their thing. Aristide, behind a bullet proof screen on the Palace steps, makes a long and tortuous ‘reconciliation’ speech. The amplification system is useless and the crowd cannot hear him but they don’t care. They are ecstatic. The father is home.

October 16, 1994

It’s over. Flights are full. Impossible to leave when I intended. I’m half sorry-half happy. One more day to flutter in the golden cage high on the hill above Port-au-Prince.



Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.