Monday, October 02, 2006

On September 30th

Two years ago yesterday, as I sat in my apartment in Rio de Janeiro working on my first book, a young man that I knew from the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Winston Jean-Bart, better known as Tupac, was shot at a demonstration calling for the return of Haiti’s ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Tupac passed by the Boston section of that sprawling shantytown with hundreds of others, the group was fired upon by a gang lead by Robinson “Labanye” Thomas, working in tandem with elements of the the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH). Tupac’s brother, a dear friend of mine of many years named James Petit-Frere, known on the streets as Billy and, like Tupac, the leader of a pro-Aristide gang in Cite Soleil, went back to avenge his brother’s death, only to be grievously wounded by a bullet to the stomach, pulled out of a hospital bed by Haitian police and thrown into jail. After a strenuous effort on the part of many of James’ friends, we succeeded in locating him and, displaying great courage as the Haitian capital was in the midst of the pro-Aristide uprising that became know as Operation Baghdad, among those who got in to see him was friend of mine, a Haitian physician, who made his way into James’ cell in order to examine and treat his wounds. James survived, but his time on this earth was proved to be short lived, as he escaped from prison in a massive February 2005 jailbreak in Port-au-Prince and, as I have heard now from multiple accounts, was shot and killed by police as he attempted to make his way back to Cite Soleil a short time later. I had last seen him in Cite Soleil in early 2004, just as it was becoming apparent that Aristide was hanging on to power by the faintest tether. Mr. Aristide fled Haiti on February 29th, 2004, and left the brothers, and all of his other supporters, to their fates. Now, along with his moneyed defenders in the United States and elsewhere, Mr. Aristide sits in safety, but I, to say nothing of the family they left behind, will never be able to see James or Tupac again. It is a great loss, for those of us who considered ourselves their friends and for Haiti because, given the opportunity, I think there was much that those boys and others like them could have done for their country.

In the intervening two years, there have been many people that I have known in Haiti who have passed on from this life to whatever lies beyond: Labanye himself, betrayed and killed by his own deputy, Evans Jeune, in collusion with his fierce opponent, Emmanuel “Dread” Wilmé; the historian and author Gerard Pierre-Charles, who I watched struggle to uphold his country‘s fragile democratic gains; the art dealer Issa el Saieh who first introduced me to wonders that the artists of Haiti were producing even among the country’s worst civil strife; Butteur Metayer, one of the leaders of the armed rebellion that finally helped drive Mr. Aristide and his tyrannical, unjust regime from power (in revenge for the killing of his own brother and to be succeeded by only more bloodshed); the journalist Jacques Roche, who sometimes shared a table with me at the Tropical Bar in Port-au-Prince; the jovial “mayor” of Nazon, Jean Alonce Durosel, known to all who were his friends as Verdieu; and, most recently, the community leader Esterne Bruner. Though not all died violently and not all were admirable figures, I can’t help but think that, in their last moments, all of them may have looked around and wondered about what Haiti had become. A country, as a friend of mine once wrote, where almost all of the choices available to the population are bad choices. Do you stay in the countryside and starve, or do you go into the gang-infested neighborhoods on the capital to try and scramble for whatever scraps are left over once the politicians (with a few exceptions) and their foreign helpers are done fighting over them? Do you pick up a gun and defend whoever is in power at the time, or do you reject violence and put yourself at the mercy of those who do have weapons? Or, if you are of a slightly higher social strata, do you continue struggling to make your country a better place and to make a living there, against very long odds and against the very real ever-present threat of violence, or do you go abroad, take your family with you and forever turn your back on the only place you will ever likely really feel at home, along with all the guilt and regret that comes with it? These are the choices those in Haiti are forced to make everyday.

There have been too many bodies in Haiti. I feel I have too many to remember this Guede, almost more than I can count. Over two years into the United Nations mission in Haiti and over 100 days into Rene Preval’s presidency, the suffering and the killing in Port-au-Prince continues. Amidst these struggles, the United States Congress, to its never-ending shame (if such a thing still exists in Washington), spurred on by House Republican leaders, decided to postpone consideration of H.R. 6142, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act. Florida Democratic representative Kendrick B. Meek (whom I saw briefly during his 2003 visit to Haiti), evidently one of the few members of this august body whose conscience has not totally been eviscerated, issued a statement saying of the Congress that “If Haiti were important to them, they would have included Haiti in the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Act. The President and Congressional Republicans not only pushed CAFTA-DR through Congress, but once it passed, the President held a signing ceremony in the White House. Haiti requires such attention..”

Indeed. So among these melancholy anniversaries, where does one look for hope?

To Haiti, of course, and to the words of Jacques Roche who, before his murder in July 2005, recorded three CDs of him reading his own work entitled Le Vent de Liberte. Among the contents of the CDs, was a poem, poignantly titled Survive:

You can destroy my house
Steal my money
My clothesAnd my shoes
Leave me naked in the middle of winter
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can shut my mouth
Throw me in prison
Keep my friends far from me
And sully my reputation
Leave me naked in the middle of the desert
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can put out my eyes
And burst my eardrums
Cut off my arms and legs
Leave me naked in the middle of the road
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can cover me with open sores
Poke an iron into the wounds
Take pleasure in torturing me
Make me piss blood
You can shut me away without pen or paper
Treat me like a madman
Drive me mad
Humiliate me
Crush me
Give me no food or water
Make me sign my surrender
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
You can kill my children
Kill my wife
Kill all those I hold dear
Kill me
But you cannot kill my dream
You cannot kill hope
-Jacques Roche


Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael. Your blog made me turn of the phone and close the blinds for some moments of reflection.

And I would like to add to all those who think they can overcome gang-related crimes by comitting crimes against humanity in the slums of Haiti, that for every gangmember they kill there will be another with less restraint behind him picking up the gun. If there is no hope, there is always the gun. Sad, but true.

Tupak told me that if he or his brother were killed the capital would explode in violence as younger and wilder and more hatefull guys would take over...

Tupak was killed on the 30th of September and all hell broke loose as operation Baghdad began and the streets of Port-au-Prince have never been the same again.

Turns out Tupak was right and that there is a esson to be learned.

Michael Deibert said...

Dear Asger,

Indeed. I remember sitting off Grand Rue in early 2001 with my friend Etzer Pierre, a democratic activist from the late 1980's/early 1990's and now in my view one of Haiti's greatest living painters, and having him regretfully tell me that "There's a new generation of political activists now who have come onto the scene since the return of Aristide without the level of political maturity that a lot of the older ones had developed over the years. A lot of the people who are acting now are acting neither with the same vision for global change nor the political autonomy that they were acting with in the 1980's."

Around the same time, I realized that, despite their involvement in Haiti's often violent politics (which the political actors manipulated at will while steering well clear of the line of fire), people like James, Tupac, Labanye, Amaral and others were in fact the most politically aware of the hardened young men from those ghettos, and that in fact many of the "soldiers" under them were full of much of the same rage but lacking in any ability to judge and analyze their situation that some of the bosses had. I've tried to make it clear that if those in power kill a gang leader today, there will be twenty young men waiting in line willing to take his place, and always an opportunistic gangster-politician to exploit that sense of hopelessness. There needs to be a genuine rapprochement between woche nan dlo and woche nan soley. Too much to hope for? I hope not, because until the system of Haiti changes - the system of economic exclusion, environmental degradation, lack of education and services and political chicanery and violent, often murderous manipulation - nothing else will change for Haiti.