Konstitisyon Se Papye, Bayonet Se Fe
Roland Paphius, the Raboteau massacre trial’s first witness, invoked the Creole proverb, “a constitution is paper, a bayonet is steel.” He had been head prosecutor in Gonaives in April 1994, when soldiers and paramilitaries of the de facto military dictatorship attacked Raboteau, pillaging, beating and killing the neighborhood’s inhabitants. Met (attorney) Paphius was widely respected as a man of the law, politically neutral. He offered the proverb when asked why he did not investigate the massacre, when he was legally required to do so. He told the jury that he could not investigate soldiers’ crimes, without himself becoming another victim. He added that the proverb was certainly true in April 1994, that he was waiting to see if it was still so.
That time and that courtroom gave hope that the Haitian Constitution’s paper could triumph over the bayonet’s steel. In October 2000, Haiti was six years into its longest democratic interlude ever. Almost five years before, the first transfer of power from one democratically-elected President to another had taken place. In four months President Preval would become the first Haitian President ever to serve out his entire constitutional term in office and leave voluntarily. The army that had long preyed on Haiti’s poor, its civilian institutions and its treasury had been demobilized.
Met Paphius’ testimony kicked off Haiti’s best criminal trial ever, and one of the most significant human rights trials in the Americas. Defendants in the courtroom included former soldiers and members of FRAPH, people who had abused their power and the justice system to intimidate, rob and repress. Some had been arrested at expensive houses, or at jobs with the police and prisons. Three members of the all-powerful military high command would be deported later from the U.S. to answer charges for Raboteau. The trial started just after the Carrefour Feuilles trial, in which the Port-au-Prince Commissioner and other top officials were convicted for murder.
Getting to trial had taken the Raboteau victims six years of hard work, using every peaceful means the democratic interlude offered. Haiti’s bureaucracy and justice system, long accustomed to serving dictators, did not easily switch gears to serve the majority.
The victims organized, commemorated, vigilled and demonstrated; they met with officials, wrote letters to ministers and notes to the press; spoke out on radio and television, and pressured their elected representatives. They cooperated with and cajoled anyone who might help: police, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and other victims.
The Raboteau victims encountered constant frustration. They complained about the government. They complained about corrupt judicial officials, about inefficient police, about feeling abandoned by Port-au-Prince, about not having jobs or enough to eat. But while they complained, they also worked. They knew the system would not change quickly or without much pressure, but they knew they had to make it change.
The Raboteau victims could have had quick results with steel. They could have killed the men who killed their neighbors, people like Jean Pierre, a.k.a. Tatoune, one of Gonaives’ top FRAPH leaders. They could have threatened officials instead of lobbying them, burned the courthouse down instead of filling it up with witnesses. But they knew that every kind of violent change had been tried before in Haiti, that none had worked. They knew that violence leads to more violence. They knew violence sometimes profits a few, and always makes the majority more miserable. So the Raboteau victims decided not to use the power of the bayonet, but to break it.
One by one, the victims and witnesses to the Raboteau massacre testified, in open court, on national television. Each one let the defendants get a good look, proudly announced his or her real name, then told the truth of what happened, a truth that would place dangerous and now vengeful men in jail.
The victims made the system work, according to democratic constitutional rules. The jury convicted sixteen defendants and let six go. The judge convicted thirty-seven more in absentia, including the top army and FRAPH leadership. The UN called the trial “a landmark in the fight against impunity.” National and international observers agreed that the trial was fair to victims and accused alike, a victory of paper over steel. The victims of Raboteau, and of every other attack of the powerful against the powerless could proudly say that justice had been done.
Today the bayonets are back in Gonaives. Jean Tatoune escaped in 2002, and started terrorizing those who testified against him. Most of the Raboteau victims were in maronaj by last December, hiding with friends or relatives, their lives disrupted. Two had their houses burned down with all their possessions, as did the trial’s head prosecutor. Rebels released all criminals in the Gonaives prison in early February.
A larger rebellion led by Guy Philippe, implicated in drug trafficking and murder when he was a police commissioner, and Jodel Chamblain, a top FRAPH leader convicted in absentia for the Raboteau massacre, brought bayonets to the rest of Haiti. Days after Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted on a “peaceful and constitutional solution,” the U.S. kidnapped Haiti’s constitutional President. Later that day the remaining Raboteau massacre prisoners were broken out of the Port-au-Prince penitentiary.
Haiti now has a “Prime Minister” appointed by seven men, none of them elected. Cities not controlled by foreign troops are, like Gonaives, controlled by illegal rebel forces. The appointed de facto Minister of the Interior has announced the army’s resurrection. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of men, women and children have been killed, executed for supporting the government they elected.
On March 20, the de facto Prime Minister traveled by U.S. helicopter to a ceremony at the Gonaives Place Publique next to the destroyed courthouse. He and Ambassador David Lee, head of the Organization of American States’ Special Mission, stood tall on the platform with the fugitive and murderer Jean Tatoune. The Minister called the killers who broke out the Raboteau criminals “freedom fighters.” The Ambassador told a journalist “of course we don’t agree that violence should be rewarded.”
Pote Mak Sonje , a film about the Raboteau victims’ fight for justice, will be shown Monday April 5 at 6 p.m., at the Harvard Medical School – New Research Building, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur , near Longwood Ave. (Longwood Stop on “D” or “E” Green Lines). Call (617) 432-0049 for more information.
Brian Concannon Jr
Boston Haitian Reporter
April 1, 2004