Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

So That Tyrants Won’t Rest, Haitians Keep a Vigil

David Conzalez, New York Times
August 2, 2000

So That Tyrants Won’t Rest, Haitians Keep a Vigil

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Every Wednesday, a crowd gathers in the Plaza
of Martyrs here for a ritual as unsparing and inescapable as the brutal
midday sun. They circle a statue of a slender man releasing a dove to
the heavens hoping that their pleas,too, will rise above the din and
indifference. “We are not going to hide from the assassins,” they chant.
“The people are like the trees. We will bend but we will not break.” Nor
will they budge. What started with 11 people in 1997 over the beatings,
rapes and murders committed under the regime that ousted President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup has grown to a weekly march of
more than 100 men and women. They are part of a national movement
seeking an end to the tradition of impunity here that has allowed those
with money or political clout to escape judgment. At the Plaza of
Martyrs, the victims and their relatives carry picket signs like
crosses slung over their shoulders –and they say it is an easy burden
compared with the scars they carry on their bodies or in their minds.
“This is my husband,” said Jocelyne St.-Germain as she held out a
photograph taken at his funeral. His brown suit was spotless. His
face was bruised and bloody. She said masked men came to their
home soon after the coup and killed him because he had supported Mr.
Aristide. Ever since the coup’s leaders were routed in 1994, she has
been waiting to find the men who made her a widow. My husband was
sacrificed for this government,” Ms. St.-Germain said, tucking her
husband’s picture back into her purse. “Now they have to make an effort
to get those responsible. My husband died for Aristide.” Mr. Aristide
was restored to power and then succeeded in office by an ally, René
Préval, but it has taken all this time for the country’s justice system,
weakened by long years of dictatorship, to begin to deal with the issue.
In the coming months, the officers who led the coup will finally stand
trial — albeit in absentia because they are in exile — along with the
soldiers and paramilitary forces accused in a massacre during the coup
era in the Raboteau neighborhood of the town of Gonaïves. A second trial
is expected in the case of six policemen accused of executing several
gang members last year and of killing witnesses to the executions.
Although the public is still skittish over more recent violence,
thetrials are seen by many as critical to restoring not only confidence
in the justice system, but also faith in the future itself.”What happens
in any democratic transition is there is pressure toward reconciliation,
which usually means forgetting,” said Brian Concannon, an American
lawyer who has been helping the Haitian justice system with the Raboteau
case. “That’s fine for the businessmen and politicians, but it doesn’t
work for the victims.” The demonstrations at the Plaza of Martyrs
started as therapy for the coup victims by Lovensky Pierre-Antoine, a
psychologist who ran an underground clinic of sorts during the coup
years. During those years, he said, people who had been raped or
tortured could not seek treatment at hospitals because they feared
arrest. After the restoration of constitutional rule, he continued to
work with the victims and started the September 30th Foundation, named
for the date of the coup, which began the marches. He fashioned his work
after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine group
whose vigils sought justice for sons and daughters who vanished
during that country’s military regime. Mr. Pierre-Antoine sees the
weekly gatherings as an important way to help rebuild the tattered
social contract. “One of the dirty jobs ofthe coup was that it took away
the dignity of the people,” he said.”To forget is not therapeutic. On
the contrary, when you forget something it goes deeper into your mind
and changes how you behave toward the people around you.” But restoring
people’s dignity, he said, ultimately depends on restoring confidence in
Haiti’s courts, which for decades were under the control of dictators
and the rich. That is why many Haitians are looking to the coming trials
as a bellwether. Camille LeBlanc, Haiti’s justice minister, said that
these high-profile cases, in which attacks were aimed at entire
communities and were witnessed by many, were easier to prosecute than
crimes against individuals, where the trial would hinge on the
conflicting testimonies of two people. The Raboteau case, he said, will
put on trial not only actual gunmen,who chased down their victims as
they fled into the sea, but also the army generals and leaders of the
Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, the
paramilitary group, which created the political atmosphere that led
to the massacres. Mr. LeBlanc is intent on sending a message to the
high-ranking officers in exile. “The intellectual authors bear the same
responsibility as the material authors,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “Everyone is
accountable.” The desire to root out the crimes of the coup has also
propelled a campaign for the United States to return documents it seized
from the paramilitary group and the Haitian military during the invasion
to restore Mr. Aristide to power. Among the contents are “trophy
photographs” of torturers with their victims, which Haitian authorities
would like to use as evidence in criminal proceedings. Mr.Concannon, who
has also helped rally international support for the return of the
documents, said they could also help build a case against the coup’s
leaders. State Department officials said they had returned the documents
to the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, although without the names of
American citizens, who they said were covered under American laws
protecting privacy. Haitian officials insist that the documents are the
property of the Haitian government and that they will accept only the
unexpurgated files. “We’re not asking for the C.I.A. to give us their
deep dark secrets,” Mr. Concannon said. “We only asking them to give us
our secrets.” Perhaps tucked somewhere in those files is the answer to
the painful mystery that haunts Efemie Jean-Pierre every time she looks
at her 5-year-old son, Philippe. “They killed my husband, those men
without mothers,” she said of the night in 1994 when the soldiers came
calling. “They came to my house afterward and they beat me up. Then they
tied me up and raped me. I became pregnant. I had a baby from them.” One
day, she said, she will tell that child everything — perhaps even who
the father is, if he is ever caught. “Justice is closed in this
country,” she said. “The box is closed. We have to work until the box is
open and we find out who did this to us.”

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