By Johanna Berrigan
Editors Note: From Feb. 21 thru 24 , Johanna Berrigan, House of Grace Catholic Worker; Robert Boucher, Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon; Thomas Gumbleton, Auxillary Bishop of Detroit; Bill Quigley, Social Justice Lawyer; Claire Schaeffer � Duffy, Catholic Worker, Free Lance Journalist and Karen Wisniewski, Registered Nurse were in Haiti to investigate human rights abuses from a health care perspective and the possibility of establishing an ongoing health care presence at St. Claire�s parish. The following is a summary of their trip. We urge everyone to become more aware of the tragedy of the human rights abuses and suffering of the Haitian people which has escalated to an alarming degree since the U.S.-backed coup d� etat Feb. 29, 2004, which removed the Democratically elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Overthrow this oppression, Oh God; confuse all that seeks to destroy. For I see violence and strife all around me. Day and night it patrols our cities; they are full of wickedness and evil, ruin is in their midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from theirmarket places. Psalm 55
Haitian police, under the guise of searching for escaped criminals, went to Bel Air and gunned down more than fifteen people in cold blood with UN troops providing firepower cover, an email from Marguerite Laurent of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network said.. It was written on Saturday, February 26, just two days after our delegation returned home from Haiti. The e-mail continued, �Who do we call for help here? This is an evil, evil world with international officials turning their heads away while our people simply are murdered under UN mandate and the media staying absolutely blind, dumb and deaf as Haitians die and die and die and die. It is horrifying.�
This morning, Sunday, I am trying to make sense of my feelings upon hearing more sad news that a two-year-old girl, whom we had met at St. Catherine�s Hospital in Cite� Soleil just days before, had died. The exact cause of death has not been determined. Her mother dead and her father too sick to care for her, she had been left at the hospital by her uncle. No one there knew her name. Angelic, dressed in a beautiful white dress, she appeared to be only nine months old. The nurse caring for her offered a casual reply – malnutrition. Her breathing labored due to pneumonia, we were informed that the hospital had run out of oxygen and had no money to purchase more. Our delegation arranged for more oxygen to be purchased for her, but now we know that it was too late. Her plight, this sad tragedy, is the plight of Haiti�s poor – abandoned and struggling to live; suffocating under the U.S.-backed oppressive regime of Gerard LaTortue.
During our stay in Haiti the quote by Dorothy Day, �When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cu rsed be your religion and your life� ran through my mind like a mantra as both a profound truth and a call. We witnessed first hand the ways in which they have come, and continue to come for the innocent. Visitation House, founded by Ron Voss in 1993, is the guest house where our delegations stay and receive gracious hospitality while in Port-au-Prince. It is also the operating center for a group of neighborhood projects which offer local residents an opportunity to escape poverty and disease. The project includes: a health clinic and laboratory, a clean water distribution program, a food co-op, a legal services bureau, a youth sports program, and a variety of educational, informational and training programs. It is also the guest house for thousands of people who have come to Haiti through the Parish Twinning Program founded by Theresa Patterson. The interim government has accused Ron Voss of holding a meeting at Visitation House to plan the prison escape of former Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, former Minister of Interior, Jocelerme Privert, and 480 other prisoners which occurred on February 19. This is a bizarre and unsubstantiated accusation. Nonetheless, 12 heavily armed, masked policemen invaded Visitation House, seized personal property, ransacked the house and took Ron away for questioning. No evidence has been found, yet he remains under investigation.
We visited two of the police stations in Port-au-Prince where we spoke with some of the more than 700 political prisoners who have been unjustly arrested and illegally detained because of their support for President Aristide and involvement with the Fanmi Lavalas Party. At the Anti-Gang station there were as many as 20 men in one small holding cell, ages 14 to 51 years old. The conditions in which they are being held represent, as Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste so aptly stated, �inhumanity at its peak�. The prisoners have to remain in the cell 24 hours a day. A small window allows for some light; otherwise there is none. The detainees are allowed to use the bathroom once in the morning. There is no food, unless family members or friends provide it. For some, their families have no idea that they are in jail. They cannot lie down to sleep; there is not enough room.
The Haitian constitution states that prisoners should go before a judge within 48 hours of their arrest. Many had been in this cell for months and have not seen a judge. Many simply had no idea what their charges were. Their stories went something like this: �I got picked up in a raid.� �I was just walking down the street and since I am poor and have no job, they picked me up.� One elderly man asked, �Is it legal to be arrested for a crime that someone else committed? I was arrested because of the crime that my sons committed.� One man came forward, saying he had been arrested because he looked like the cousin of Dred Wilme, a well-known President Aristide supporter and Fanmi Lavalas Party leader in Cite� Soleil. He held a Bible in his hand and said, � I have been serving God since I was 11 years old. Maybe God sent you here to help.�
At the Comissariat in Port-au-Prince,one by one in solemn succession the prisoners stepped forward to relay their stories. As we turned to leave, one man said, �Don�t you have anything to give us?� We were not permitted to bring in our bags and had no money or food to give. I simply said, �No, we don�t, but I can tell you that on Monday morning, Feb. 28th we will be holding a demonstration in front of the White House to demand respect for your human rights and to call for the return of President Aristide and Democracy in Haiti.� Those words instantaneously turned the darkness to light. All of the men were smiling and giving us the peace sign and holding our hands in gratitude and solidarity. One man said, �Take our picture, and put what we said in Arisitide�s ear so he can see how his sons are suffering. We need him to come back.�
We visited with people in the slums of Cite� Soleil, perhaps the poorest people in the western hemisphere who are the victims suffering deeply from structural and political violence. One woman, Marianne Fifi, had sustained a gun shot wound to her left breast. Her chest wall, now a gaping hole, was infected due to lack of proper medical care. Sitting in the darkness of the hovel that is her home, she rocked back and forth in pain, a dirty rag to cover her wound. Although we had an interpreter, I had no words to console her. Robert, Karen and I had only a laying-on of hands for her treatment and healing.
A young man who had been beaten by the police weeks earlier and suffered from both malaria and typhoid complained of being anemic and very weak. He thought that his last substantial meal was approximately two months ago. There was no money for food. We visited a 26 year old woman who had been in bed since November with a �weak heart�. We observed her to be too weak to move or talk. She had a fever and bad cough. She had received no medical attention and had no money for food. She cried and cried as Bishop Gumbleton gave her a blessing. We were taken to one of the elders of the community who had been sick for the past three days with a stomach virus. His son demanded, aggressively in our faces, to know what we were going to do for his father. Luckily, Robert had some medicines to help and won him over by discussing with him not only his father�s condition, but concerns about his own health as well.
I cannot find words to describe the stench, nor the squalid situation in which these sick and suffering people were living. Tom Griffin, Immigration Lawyer, in his recent report on Haiti refers to Cite� Soleil as �one of the most distressed and hungry gatherings of humanity in the world�. Mercifully, through Anne Sosin of The Institute of Justice and Democracy, we were able to arrange for these people�s care at the hospital and to buy food and water for them during their recovery.
One of our goals for this particular delegation was to assess the possibility of establishing a health care presence at St. Claire�s parish at the request of Fr. Jean-Juste, who was recently released from 7 weeks in prison on false charges. I am happy to say that the goal was accomplished. We are in the process of organizing the next delegation. The plan is to begin by training members of St. Claire�s parish to be community health workers. We will also begin by providing basic health care to the children of the parish who come to the church for the feeding program. Ultimately, we hope to establish a House of Grace Catholic Worker sister clinic, which would be run by Haitian people with delegations from the U.S. assisting throughout the year as support staff.
Feb. 28 marked the one year anniversary of the coup d�etat that forced out Haiti�s democratically elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide. Haiti Action Committee writes, �The coup not only overthrew President Aristide, it overthrew a progressive economic and social agenda supported by the vast majority of Haiti�s population. Literacy programs, health care centers, the fight for children�s rights, a raise in the minimum wage, resistance to privatization, the struggle to bring human rights violators to justice and the effort to create an independent judiciary � these were the real targets of the coup. The coup has created a grave human rights situation in Haiti. Assassination squads now roam the cities and countryside searching for Fanmi Lavalas supporters. Bodies appear daily with hands cuffed behind their backs and plastic bags over their heads�thousands of Aristide supporters remain in hiding while other Haitians try to flee the country only to be turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard.� Our experiences while in Haiti have proven that one year later Haiti remains politically unstable, plagued by violence, and horrendously impoverished. Many of the advances that had been made under President Aristide have been reversed.
True to our promise to the Haitian political prisoners, approximately 50 people gathered for a demonstration in front of the White House to mark the anniversary of the coup. At the same time, thousands of Haitians held a demonstration in Bel Air, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. To the beat of drums they chanted, �Bring back Titi� (Aristide) in Creole, French and English. As both groups nonviolently demanded respect for Haitian human rights and the return of President Aristide and Democracy to Haiti, the U.S. protesters were ignored at the White House, while in Haiti the police opened fire on the unarmed crowds, killing two people and wounding many more.
Bill Quigley, a member of our delegation who had remained in Haiti, said after witnessing the atrocity, �It was a horrifying and totally unprovoked massacre. People didn’t have — they had no guns, no bats, no pipes, no rocks, no anything. They were holding up political signs and dancing.� Upon leaving the demonstration together, Fr Jean-Juste turned to him and said, �You see, Bill, you know what we face trying to do a nonviolent return of democracy in Haiti. The challenges we face are just incredible. We need international support to help us bring back our president, release our political prisoners, and restore constitutional democracy in Haiti.�