John Donnelly, Boston Globe
June 11, 2000
JUSTICE DELAYED: SHOWDOWN LOOMS IN HAITI FORMER BOSTON LAWYER TO TRY EX-OFFICIALS IN 1994 MASSACRE
GONAIVES , Haiti – It was just another slaughter in Haiti.
Soldiers and police beat people in their homes here before dawn on April 22, 1994. They shot them fleeing into the sea. It became a massacre of floating corpses.
And that normally would have been the end of the story, for Haiti’s history is full of bloody tales of the military acting as it pleased, crushing any who resisted.
This time was different.
Months later, a US invasion force of 20,000 troops ushered out the country’s military leaders, and the victims in the Raboteau neighborhood of Gonaives grew more determined not to allow what had happened that morning slip away forgotten.
They demanded justice for the dead, whose estimated number is 15. So they marched. At one protest, a chance bystander listened intently and decided to get involved. He was Brian Concannon Jr. of Marshfield, an ex-corporate attorney bored with litigation that impacted only big-monied interests.
The government of Haiti hired him to help prepare the Raboteau case. Suddenly, Raboteau became more than just another slaughter.
More than six years after the bloodletting, the case against 57 former officials and private militia members is set to go to trial before a jury this summer.
The government hopes the trial will push forward its rudimentary attempts at building a civil society, showing the nation that the poor can find justice in Haiti and need not risk a rickety boat ride to the United States to secure a basic tenet of democracy.
It also hopes the case will win extradition for the leaders of the brutal 1991-94 military regime, including army commander Raoul Cedras, suspected drug trafficker and Port-au-Prince police chief Michel Francois, and the CIA-backed right-wing politician Emmanuel Constant. Constant and several others cited by prosecutors live in the United States.
The case represents one of Haiti’s first steps on the long road of seeking truth and reconciliation for past injustices, joining a steadily growing movement of countries facing their past and trying to heal deep wounds in order to move ahead.
“I want the government to make an example of these people now in jail,” said Gonaives Mayor Mary Nicolas, leaning on her door, which bears gunshot holes from the night of the massacre. “People must be sentenced and shown as an example for everyone in Haiti that those committing massacres will serve time.”
There are no guarantees, of course. The trial may yet be delayed. And even if it goes forward, the case may prove an aberration and not inspire other legal action.
But there is strong evidence that for the first time a malfunctioning judicial system has been forced to master a complex case: the defendants have had top-notch representation, unlike past human rights cases; the case has advanced, if slowly, through two levels of appeal; close coordination has been established among judges, prosecutors, police, and victims; and a judge outlined the charges in a 173-page finding that Concannon calls “the best single document to come out of the Haitian justice system.”
“We’re trying to make a clean break with the past, the pre-1994 years when there was no justice system,” Concannon said. Still, “people we work with are very apprehensive and skeptical. It’s very frustrating because the system isn’t functioning as well as it should be.”
Concannon, 36, the second of five children of two lawyers in Marshfield, had left the Boston firm of Mintz Levin in 1993 to work in international human rights. He observed elections in El Salvador. And he was a human rights worker in Haiti for nine months.
“In my Boston job, I didn’t make the world any better whether I won or lost cases,” said Concannon, sitting in his Port-au-Prince office, which is the size of a walk-in closet and which has three dusty suit jackets on hangers that rest unsteadily on a window sill. “I wanted to get into something that whether I won or lost, or did a good or bad job, made a difference in the scheme of things.”
The Raboteau case was just what he was looking for. “People were singing and chanting for justice,” he said. “They really inspired me.”
In 1995, the government established the International Lawyers Office to investigate human rights violations. When Concannon took his job a year later, he believed he would be in Haiti for six months, possibly a year.
“It’s taken four years because that’s how long these things take here,” he said. “There’s a Haitian proverb that says, `Behind a mountain there are more mountains.’ The main thing is that the system has never done something like this.”
Raboteau straddles a Caribbean bay, its maze of wide dusty streets leading to salt pits at water’s edge. In the pits, the water is the color of violet. In one pit, a body was dragged out a day after the massacre, likely by foraging pigs. Another body was found in a boat called Dieu Si Bon, or God is so Good, an expression usually followed by the phrase, “Have mercy on us.” At least three other corpses washed ashore.
Four days after the massacre, this reporter found Raboteau a virtual ghost town. Front doors swung open, furniture was broken in pieces in streets and only a handful of the neighborhood’s several thousand residents could be seen. Some brave teenagers led the way to two shallow graves that had been partially unearthed by animals.
In a recent visit, residents vividly remembered the day the police ran wild.
“Oh! That morning!” said white-haired Joseph Morancy, 76, a former cosmetics salesman. “We have a saying. What happened then was pig in Raboteau, and Raboteau was pig.”
He said police stole his life’s earnings that day, the equivalent of $12,000 in cash that was hidden in his home. He wife grew so frightened by hooligans smashing their possessions and threatening her that “she became paralyzed. Literally. She can’t move. I lost sight of my right eye from that day on. From shock. Will we get justice? Oh! What is justice? That day turned me into a beggar. People are kind, but what can justice do?”
Next door was Nicolas. “Lucky for me, I escaped just in time,” she said. “They shot at me, but missed. So they broke everything I owned, ripped the telephone off the wall. I found everything in the street.”
In about 90 witness statements, Concannon and fellow human rights attorney Mario Joseph, the victims’ lawyer, have amassed a tale of looting and killing.
Olgate Valcin’s detailed seven-page summary, which touched on the historical tensions between the community and authorities, addressed the fate of his father, Valcin Valcius, 67, blind since the age of 40. Valcin said militiaman Jean Tatoune and others entered his house. They “beat my father with sticks, rifle butts, and fists. The executioners stopped their torture when my father began vomiting blood.” Outside the house, Valcin said, police Captain Castera Cenafils gave orders.
Soon after, his father died.
The people charged in the crime – Cenafils, Tatoune and 20 other former soldiers, police officers and attaches – now are locked up at the Gonaives prison.
Standing on a concrete courtyard, a taciturn Tatoune, his arms crossed over a tank top with “Houston” written across it, said he had nothing to do with the events of April 22, 1994.
“That night, I wasn’t even around,” said Tatoune, 42, father of 14 children, who has been in jail for five years awaiting trial. “I was working elsewhere delivering food.”
He would say no more. Cenafils, though, was talkative. The government’s version, he said, was fiction. He described a group of “terrorists” attacking his police station early that morning and the police then searching for them.
“One person died. If that. No one in the population was touched,” he said. “The system has dropped everything on my back. They cannot prove that their story is true, that a massacre happened. I’ve never seen any death certificates.”
Asked about the bodies found, Cenafils said no one could say the circumstances of their death. Asked why the town had emptied out for days after that April 22, he said, “Maybe they were all at a party in a neighboring town.”
Life in prison, he said, has been “most difficult.” One hardship has been the lack of communication with family, including his mother and two sisters in Boston. “I miss them very much,” he said.
In Boston, Roseluma Cenafils, his sister, said she worries about him. “What is going on? My God, what is going on with my brother?” she asked rhetorically. “You wait, you wait, you wait, nothing happens.”
Waiting, too, is Concannon’s family, 30 miles southeast of Boston.
“Brian’s had a tremendous commitment to helping other people,” said Rose Anne Concannon, his mother. “But he’s been gone too long. We miss him.”
Leaning back in his chair in Port-au-Prince, the sounds of car horns from John Brown Avenue echoing in his office, Concannon said he would be staying “as long as this case takes. I want to head back to Boston, but we have something to finish here. How long can it take
1. A woman strolls along the Gonaives beach where the 1994 massacre of as many as 15 civilians is believed to have occurred.
2. Brian Concannon Jr., investigating the Raboteau massacre, left his Boston job because “I didn’t make the world any better whether I won or lost cases.”
3. Jean Tatoune (above) and 20 others charged in the crime are locked up at the Gonaives prison. Tatoune says he is innocent.
GLOBE STAFF PHOTOS/JONATHAN WIGGSPHOTO
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 0006110434