It is often said where one was born and spent the first decade of his life will forever mark him. I guess I’m a testament to this awesome true. Having been born in Haiti and lived there until I became a teenager has made me the everlasting sufferer. Growing up in Haiti, I was practically ignorant to the history of my homeland, specifically the country’s contemporary history. I grew up in Haiti during the Duvalier era. But the town, in which I was raised, was quite peaceful, although the symbols of Duvalierism were always omnipresent. My early years at school were spent at the Catholic Brothers, an imposing building with a large enclosed courtyard partitioned into several soccer fields for primary school children like me to play at recreational times, and I was very good at playing goalie.
The school sat on a hilltop overlooking the town’s harbor, but next to it was a small army barrack which had long been converted into a police precinct where prisoners were jailed. During the afternoon tropical breeze, when school was dismissed and hungry children were rushing home, I could watch groups of men lined up in military formation, but in plain civilian clothes, parading before few gendarmes in khaki uniforms raising their rifle butts up in the air to keep the men in check. I knew a good number of them, and because they were ordinary town-folks, I felt no sense of fear. To put it bluntly, I was clueless of their true role in society.
These men were often called “militiamen” or “Volunteers for National Security.” I couldn’t care less. They and their leaders had children enrolled at the school, and some of them were friends of mine. I must say that none of my close relatives were part of the so-called Tonton Macoutes militia. My parents were staunchly religious, conservatives Christians whose daily lives were focused mainly on church activities and their children’s education. To these days, I recall very little hardships. We were 6 children, and mostly everything we wanted was provided. I was quite oblivious to the plight of others.
I began to sense that things were not as normal as they appeared to have been when one day during 22 Mai (May 22nd) parade, I came across a huge column of men and women in a single file, heading for the bush-land. My mother was away in Port-au-Prince, and we were left into the care of her younger sister. Upon seeing the scene unfolded, she grabbed me by the arm and ordered my siblings to follow us. In a frenzied spook, we ran up to a hillside, not far from the main street, which was canopied by an intense banana grove. Tired and exhausted, we sat at the edge of the grove on a rotten log. I lay my little head on my auntie’s chest where I could hear the pounding of her heart. From a distance, we could hear the growling of the militiamen, barking like savage wolves on a hunt of the last hour, ordering everyone to go downtown for an important meeting.
I turned around, looking my auntie strait in the eye, peering into her hazel eyes, desperately searching for an answer. “What did we do? Why do we have to run away?” I asked, totally baffled.
“There’s a meeting in the town’s square, and everyone must go,” she replied, lowering her tone in order to make sure that her voice would not betray us.” I asked no further questions, but I was still puzzled. We stayed there for about an hour, until we heard no loud voices and no tapping footsteps from the main street. We slowly drifted from the hillside while tiptoeing to our backyard with muted lips.
That first incident had triggered an awakening about my surroundings and about the country in which I was living. I began to see these men, sometimes in blue uniforms, from a different perspective. Because they were volunteers, they had no conventional wages, and their profits were based on extortions, bribes and intimidations. Papa Doc and Baby Doc purposely engineered this feared civilian corps to create a system suitable for systematic repression. Later, when my parents sent me to secondary school in Port-au-Prince, it didn’t take me long to witness firsthand the horror of Duvalierism—men in plain civilian clothes with their shiny revolvers hidden under their long sleeved shirts, and everyone acted like walking zombies. You could never express your true feelings, unless you were suicidal.
Survival instincts dictated, and I became a strategically compliant individual. I went to school one day, and my literature professor was gone. His name was Yves Médard, a flamboyant young man who was a poet admired by all my peers. We were saddened by his sudden absence, but he was soon forgotten. We were kids, unable to understand complex problems of society.
Years later, in the early 1980s, in a meeting in Miami, I finally learned about the faith of Yves Médard. He was arrested in broad daylight at his home in northern Port-au-Prince and taken to Caserne Dessalines, a huge army barrack located right in the back of the national palace. Few people who entered this dreaded place got out alive, and Médard was one of the lucky ones. His life was spared because he was well known and because his wife had to risk her life to make his disappearance heard.
Outside of Haiti, I came to learn the true nature of the terror inflicted by Duvalier and his henchmen on a defenseless population. Thanks to some patriotic Haitians who were already living in exile, among them Professor Marx Chancy, Gérard Pierre-Charles, poet Paul Laraque, all of whom were victims of the repressive regime in Port-au-Prince, I and a group of compatriots, young and hungry for knowledge, were able to hold night sessions using the presence of these individuals, when they were in town, to gain what we thought was missing in the struggle for human equality in Haiti. Of course, Pierre-Charles is the author of Radiographie d’une Dictature (X-ray of a Dictatorship), a historic document which outlines the horror of Duvalierism.
By 1961, Papa Doc had already suppressed all dissents. He felt empowered enough to amend the constitution and declared himself President-for-Life. In that process, thousands were killed, and the killings went on right up until Baby Doc was forced out of power after a popular uprising in 1987.
From 1960 to 1970, Amnesty International documented more than 50,000 Haitians had fallen victims to the ferocious regime. This was a period that many Marxist historians call “The Revolutionary Decades.” The resistance movement to the fascist regime was directed by the Student Union and other leftist organizations. As the regime tightened its grip, the resistance turned violent. The sharper the resistance, the bloodier was the reaction. Entire families were wiped out. Those without “name” recognition were simply executed and dumped in shallow mass graves around the Port-au-Prince harbor. About one million Haitians fled to neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, The United States, Canada, France and several Francophone countries in Sub Saharan Africa. Haiti Sous Duvalier: Terrorisme d’ Etat et Visages de la Résistance (Haiti During the Duvalier Era: State Terrorism and the Faces of the Resistance) is a must read document for anyone who wants to understand the sadistic nature of Creole fascism in Haiti.
Honoring Duvalier or Duvalierism: the vexing issue
When Jean Claude Duvalier fled the country in the predawn hours in February 7th of 1987, the thirst for revenge reached an immeasurable pitch, and in the absence of law and order, the masses in fury took matters into their own hands. Every well known or suspected collaborators was burned alive. This was a true testament of a people who had enough and who wanted justice at all costs. A new constitution had to be written to legally do away with Duvalierism. The Duvalierists were barred from public offices for 7 years. The famous articles 291—which many had come to call psalms 91 in reference to the famous biblical scripture—enshrined in the article. François Papa Doc Duvalier never had popular legitimacy when he rose to power in 1957. He could only rule through terror, and Jean Claude Duvalier who succeeded him, inherited a power for which he was never elected. Under what ground can anyone claim, even remotely possible, that Duvalier must be honored? It is estimated that the Duvaliers embezzled more than a billion dollars from the country’s State Treasury. If you can read French, this article from Le Nouveliste could be very helpful. Non a l’apologie du crime .
In the struggle for true independence, there are many obstacles that still need to be overcome, but Jean Claude Duvalier must not be one of them. Sadly so, even in death Duvalier proves that he can be a divisive figure. Thanks to a petite bourgeoisie, opportunist to the core, the forces of evil can still find the means to manipulate the disenfranchised population. The quest to get rich has completely erased the last vestige of decency in their thinking. Unable and unwilling to do what’s right, they are trying to force the debate around an awkwardly simplistic issue: If I’m not for Sweet Micky, I must be for Aristide, two sleazy politicians who have done so many wrongs to Haiti and its people. This leaves me sometimes quite bewildered. It sounds like Haiti can’t deserve anything better than that.
Those who currently favor Martelly against Aristide, do not base their rationale on concrete facts. They do it because they think the current regime is their best chance at making this historic lead toward their golden means—becoming bourgeois. Others, who hate Aristide, do not do this because Aristide reneged on his promises and became a traitor. This could have been quite understandable. What leaves me puzzled is that they hate Aristide because of what he is no longer perceived or represented. They say Aristide favor dirty feet shantytown dwellers over the educated class. What an irony! If you consider yourself “educated,” you should first and foremost research what you want speak about. That way, your awkward and dubiously blistering messages would be based on “educated” decisions, not on ill-conceived and backward feelings, morally repugnant, clouted in outright ignorance.
Finally, one must agree there are some pretty bedfellows within the Haitian society, like in every society. Those who assassinated Dessalines were Haitians too, so were those who betrayed Charlemagne Péralte. So too were those who committed crimes against humanity on behalf of the Duvaliers, father and son. Together, they form the parasitic drain on Haiti’s survival. But I have faith, Haiti was never destined to perish. It will someday land on its feet, whether those parasites like it or not.
Ardain Ismais essayist and novelist. He is the Chief Editor for CSMS Magazine. His latest novel “Midnight at Noon” can be purchased anywhere. Click on this link to order a copy: Midnight at Noon