Violence, food shortages, school closures

Priests and lay leaders tell grim tales of political upheaval's fallout
April 30, 2004

WITH TRAVEL DIFFICULT at best, life-threatening at worst, two dozen priests and lay leaders came to the diocesan office in Petionville in March to tell their stories. Others, including the vice rector of the Episcopal University of Haiti, the directors of St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped, Holy Trinity Music School and Holy Cross Hospital in Leogane, the sisters of the Society of St. Margaret and Bishop Zaché Duracin, also shared their concerns during on-site visits. Here is some of that testimony. A more complete text of the leaders’ words will be printed on Episcopal Life’s website at

The Rev. Gesner Montes
St. Innocents, Port-de-Paix:

“In December we had floods. Every family that lives in the center city was effected. Many lost everything they had — mattresses, clothing, food, charcoal. Nineteen families in the church, 20 plus myself, lost almost everything. Some of our families lost children, two children in one family – the water carried them away.
“As the political situation got more severe, as people were attacked on the highway and the roads were barricaded, there was no further communication with the capital. After Feb. 20, a few delinquents in the community started to cause disorder, pillaging, looting, thieving, setting fires. And rape. There were many, many rapes. We have a congregation of sisters of the Roman Catholic Church. They broke into their convent, pillaged and then raped the nuns. Those delinquents have proclaimed themselves the police.”
“All our sources of water are contaminated because of the flooding.”
The church’s schools have not been able to function since January. The church has had to cancel all its afternoon and evening services (three per week).

“After 6 o’clock, these thugs shut down the roads, smash cars, search everyone. So up until today we cannot function at night.”

The Rev. Jean-Jeannot Joseph
St. Esprit, Lascahobas

“We’ve been living this situation since December 2002 in the Central Plateau. A justice of the peace was killed, and that created conflict at Lascahobas, divided the community. Some sought vengeance.
“Across the border (Dominican Republic) came a number of old military men, former Haitian military who had been in exile. They made their base in our communities. They killed people.
“It is always the innocent victims who suffer – young men and young women who have nothing to do with politics, who they encounter in the street and they kill them. So far they have killed around 25 people, young boys of Lascahobas. It is a nightmare for everyone living in this region.”
“Everyone must be made to put down their arms if we are to get out of this. Now people are telling us that since Aristide is gone the problem is going to be over. Well, it is time to pass from words to acts!”

The Rev. Jean Mathieu Brutus
Annonciation, Darbonne

“In the Darbonne region right now people cannot even buy food. Food has become so expensive that they wonder what is going to happen. Because of the traffic situation [roadblocks] and because the warehouses and storage facilities in Port-au-Prince have been destroyed, we cannot find vegetables to buy in Darbonne.
“We are in the period when we should be planting, but there is no hope of actually planting because we have no money for buying seeds. So, even if someone gives us food now, what will we do in three of four months if we don’t plant?”

Fenide Deravil
Church leader, Leogane
Wife of the Rev. Jean-Jacques Deravil

“This trouble causes women a great deal of stress because we cannot go out to tend to our concerns. There are many women who must live day to day without employment, with no way to make any money. Every time their husband or their children leave the house, she worries. She is stressed because she does not know what might happen, what news she will hear. They could be shot. Any problem could happen in the street. She is really stressed. Many, like me, suffer with high blood pressure.”

The Rev. Sonar Alexandre
St. Francois d’Assise, Isle de La Gonave

“The greatest sadness, the bitterest sorrow, for me is when I see this young generation. I see our values, our morals declining. Our economic system, our social system has so degenerated that our values have been lost.”
The Rev. Alexandre was robbed at gunpoint. “What is frustrating is that even after identifying myself as a priest, it made no difference. Thirty years ago, if someone said they were a priest, no matter who it was, that person would show respect. We are in the process of losing the sense of our lives.”

The Rev. Fernande S. Pierre-Louis
Holy Trinity School, director

(Holy Trinity School, an elementary school for 1,200 students in downtown Port-au-Prince next to the cathedral, is directly adjacent to the zone where live the gangs of Chimère, armed hooligans and Aristide supporters. The morning that Pierre-Louis spoke, she had just seen the bullet holes in the blinds of her second-floor classrooms.)
“The school suffers very much. The rumor is everywhere that the Chimères have been saying that if they see any child attending school, they will fire on them. …The vast majority of the students are children who walk to the school. They are from the classe modeste, three-quarters are from the class that must fight for survival. So the moment these mothers hear that their children risk being fired upon, they keep them home, of course. They hear the threats: ‘If Aristide isn’t brought back, no one goes to school.’”
Some parents have been unable to pay school fees since October, according to Pierre-Louis. Since February, when the school completely shut down, no one has paid, and that makes it almost impossible to pay the teachers.

The Rev. Fritz Desiré
Holy Trinity Cathedral, administrator

“Myself, as a young priest (34) at the cathedral, I realize that the pastoral ministry is very difficult because we have more than 70 percent youth. The majority of these youth have no real possibilities, no opportunities. So the pastoral ministry to them is not just giving them the Word, but advising them, too, those who cannot go to school, helping them to find a way to live.”

The Rev. Jacques Phanord
St. Matthieu, St. Matthieu

“In St. Matthieu we have six missions, and the situation there is sad, really sad. Our members pray to God, cry out their situation. In Mission St. Bartelemy in Campan – to get there takes six hours on horseback – the plight is critical. Their only resource left is to cut the remaining trees to make charcoal [for sale]. So when I come to the church, all I hear is ‘Father, we have nothing. Nothing.’ They have every problem.
“The young people are all leaving this region. They have no choice. Education ends for them at fifth grade. They must go elsewhere. ... Even if there were professors who would come teach, we have no means to pay them.
“I think it would be good if a few delegates could come here and visit some of these regions so they could witness just what is happening. The problems are so severe … this is caused by very poor management of the country. It is not God’s will that people suffer like this.”

The Rev. Walin Decamp
St. Andre, Hinche

“Wherever you go, the church people come to you and it’s the same problem. What is in their mind is that the priest always can resolve problems. The priest has money, has food, has clothing. … Now you feel like going to hide somewhere right after the service, because you cannot answer.
“When you go to visit families or the sick in the congregation, you cannot say, ‘Well, you are supposed to take this medication.’ He does not have money to buy medication. You cannot tell them, ‘Well, after taking this medication, you are supposed to eat.’ They do not have money to buy food. And you, as priest, you cannot provide money. You cannot provide clothing. You cannot provide food. That becomes a very hard challenge for a priest.”

The Rev. Fritz Valdema
St. Simeon, Croix-des-Bouquets:

“The political situation in this country is intolerable. It prevents the church from functioning in any normal manner. The population is terrified. They have to risk their lives if they want to come to church.”
“Until the situation here is stable, they can’t work, they can’t even sell what they have. There is nothing they can do to come with the money to send their children to school. Without those fees, there is no way for us to pay the teachers.”
A gang of youths accosted the Rev. Valdema on his way to celebrate a wedding on Feb. 28 (the day before Aristide left). Forced by barricaded roads to take a two-hour detour, he was stopped by the gang of teens, who demanded he give them his motorbike. Four had revolvers. He gave up his transportation.
“Don’t worry, these young are just having fun,” said a man coming out of the crowd, a man from St. Simeon’s. “I am going to get your moto back for you.”
A youth from the group spoke up: “Father, this is the first time we’ve had these weapons. The president just gave them to us, and we wanted to try them out.”
He did get his motorcycle back and left unharmed.

Dr. Jack Guy LaFontant
Hopital Ste. Croix, Leogane

“The crisis started last December. Most of the public hospitals have been closed. University Hospital, which has 1,000 beds, Ob-Gyn Hospital in Port-au-Prince and also the hospital of Cité Soleil. So we had an overload of patients during the crisis. They came all the way, even from St. Marc and Gonaives. We do not have a lot of financial resources at the hospital. We have 120 beds, but we cannot turn away patients, because our mission is to serve the poorest people in the country.
“We added more procedures, but a lot of women could not afford them in Port-au-Prince. We had a shortage of medicines, of IV solutions, so it was difficult. The [price of diesel increased, and we have to generate our own electricity for the hospital because during the crisis we did not have electricity for many days.
“We have a guest house, and we used to receive visitors. Each visitor paid $35 a day. The guest house provides about $75,000 income every year for the hospital.” No visitor has stayed in the guesthouse since January. All the medical mission trips were cancelled. Dr. LaFontant didn’t know when it would be safe enough for them to restart.

Sister Beatrice, SSM
St. Margaret’s Convent, Port-au-Prince

“Last Sunday [the day Aristide left], we began the day as usual, praying together. During the Mass we started to hear the commotion. We knew something would happen but not so quickly and not so . We were surprised, because usually it is at night that such disruptions start.
“People were running everywhere, back and forth. There were no cars. People ran and smashed things. Just behind us, we could hear it all. We were so close [inside the convent] that we could even hear their conversations. ‘We’ve got to smash this, pull this out, smash everything.’ It was a really terrible. They threw rocks, started fire, then smoke. There was so much smoke right into the convent.”
The gangs destroyed and burned two banks and half a dozen stores just a few yards away from the convent and the cathedral.
“The mob would pass this way, smash something and then gather more people over there. A minute later, we’d hear the mob on the other side and hear them ordered to go someplace else. It was organized. It was planned. They were to burn, to kill if Aristide left. Koupé tet, brulé kay.[Chop the head; fire the house].
“I was afraid,” said Sister Beatrice, 27, “they were so close to us that thought we might be the next victims.

The Rev. David Cesar
Director, Holy Trinity Music School

“Since December the music school has been affected. Students could not come to their lessons. We have 1,300 students. That gave the school a lot of problems to pay the salaries of the teachers.
“For weeks we could not have rehearsals because the streets are too bad. We were supposed to have a concert two weeks ago. The guest conductor, Janet Anthony from Wisconsin, left because she could not stay with the situation.
César, conductor of the 100-member Holy Trinity Symphony Orchestra, tells a chilling tale of a nearly disastrous celebration and performance at the palace on the night of Jan. 1, Haiti’s 200th Independence Day. A gang of Chimères stopped the bus carrying members of the orchestra outside the palace gates, and the rowdy crowd climbed into the bus and started robbing the musicians. A quick call to those expecting them for a performance at the palace brought guards, but no one was arrested.
“We had almost 15 members of the orchestra who could not play, they were so emotional and distraught.”

Nicole Magloire
Director, St. Vincent’s School

“It is not easy now to find, to buy medicines. The Red Cross is sending them, but they arrive by plane and cannot be transported. We cannot get antibiotics, anesthesia, plaster for making casts.”
Even cotton and gauze are “excessively expensive,” says Magloire who has directed the school and hospital for the disabled since 2000. “We have to [pay the inflated price] because it is necessary for the operations – the amputations, the re-forming of feet, hands, limbs.”
She worries, too, because her employees are complaining their salaries are too low, that they can’t feed their families. She knows it is true but is nearly helpless. “We hope the future government will lower prices.”

The Rev. Jean-Elie Charles
St. Vincent’s School, chaplain
Ecclesia, editor

“Haiti was a society where people respected each other, where the young respected the elders, where there was a respect for hierarchy … but no longer. There is no respect for hierarchy, no respect from the young for elders … and so we have chaos.
“It used to be that when a Mardi Gras band would pass in front of a church, even if there was no service going on, they would stop playing until they passed by. Today, they play louder than ever.”

The Rev. Max Accimé
St. Bazile le Grand in Gonaives:

“In August, my congregation was 120. In December, it decreased to 45 because of the police station next door. Every day someone would be killed. … On Jan 8, we had a wedding in the church, the Chimère entered the church because there were so many people gathered. They said ‘Father, you are praying for a lot of people, but you are not praying for the country. Be careful.’ After that, the number who came to church decreased to 25.”
The Rev. Accimé, was falsely arrested and had 50,000 gourdes (Haitian currency) for paying his schoolteachers and employees stolen at gunpoint in front of a crowd, some of them armed and masked. He finally was released and his money returned after the commandant at the police station saw his identity card from the Episcopal Church. The man had been taught by an Episcopal priest years before. He remembered.

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