Haiti Stories

On the morning of February 5, moments before her umpteenth press conference, Cheryl Little received an unsettling phone call. For Little, the crusading supervising attorney at Miami's Haitian Refugee Center, unsettling phone calls have been part of the daily grind since a September 30 military coup toppled Haiti's fledgling democracy and spurred thousands to flee the island. The calls intensified in late November, after Little filed a suit against the United States government demanding that refugees at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, be granted fair interviews before repatriation.

Informants detailed abuses by Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel in Guantanamo, the duplicity of Washington's diplomatic corps and, more than anything, the violence done in Haiti to supporters of exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Little, ever-wary of being fed false information, remained skeptical about the dispatches.

But the man who called her on February 5, she quickly decided, was no flake. In soft, measured tones, he told Little that 42 refugees, sent back to Haiti in November after brief INS interviews, had escaped the country again and been returned to Guantanamo in January. This time, however, the "double-backers" had provided stories of arrests and torture credible enough that the INS had granted 41 of them provisional asylum status.

If true, the accounts directly contradict the State Department's stubborn contention that Haitians are not being subjected to government reprisals upon return and strike at the cornerstone of the Supreme Court's January 31 decision to okay mass repatriations.

To check out the rumor, Little immediately phoned the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Officials there not only confirmed the story, but faxed her five recent accounts given by double-backers to the commission's legal protection officer in Guantanamo. Eventually fifteen accounts were made available to refugee advocates, and, later, the media.

During the past week, the State Department has initiated investigations, and officials say their findings reveal blatant contradictions in several of the testimonials. In one case, says a State Department official, U.S. embassy staffers in Haiti interviewed two Haitians the double-backer said had been killed. In another case, a refugee claimed that he and fellow repatriates were rounded up and imprisoned. But inmates in the same Port-au-Prince prison, several of them foreigners, told embassy staff they'd never seen any repatriates jailed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adds that the State Department has eighteen staffers probing the claims full- or part-time. He admits the investigations do not conclusively refute the double-backers' claims, but maintains refugees have grossly exaggerated the danger they face in Haiti. "If this kind of random, scattershot violence is occurring, why aren't we seeing a flood of refugees heading over the border to the Dominican Republic?" he asks. "Why did the majority of the refugees given safe haven in Venezuela and Honduras choose to return to Haiti?"

Little, in turn, contends that embassy apparatchiks are hardly qualified to divine truth amid Haiti's jungle of political repression. "Come on," she scoffs. "If you were a Haitian activist approached by an official from the United States government for questioning, would you tell them everything you know? We're on the phone with people in Haiti every day who tell us that many returned refugees have gone into hiding, in fear for their lives."

Meanwhile, refugee advocates continue to compile affidavits from translators at Guantanamo, journalists, and activists in Haiti, asserting the dangers refugees face upon return and noting the slipshod nature of the INS's screening process. As of this past Friday, some 35 percent of the 15,000 refugees who have left Haiti since the coup have been granted provisional asylum status. More than 5000 refugees have been forcefully repatriated since the Court's ruling, which is being appealed. And of the more than 8000 who remain in Guantanamo, half have yet to be interviewed.

Amid all the bureaucratic bandying, something of the Haitians themselves, the people and their stories, seems to have been overlooked. Thus, the accounts below, transcribed directly from the United Nations' statements.

Bona fide horror stories?
Embellished half-truths?
In either case, they speak to the desperation of refugees who, having failed to preserve their own fragile forms of liberty, have been instructed to worship the U.S. version of democracy from a safe distance.

Individual Case: Similus, Thomas
Date of birth: 30 August 1970
Place of birth: La Gonave
Place of residence: Cite-Soleil (Port-au-Prince)

IC's father, a member of the Lavalas Party, was shot dead on 1 November 1991. IC was member of Association des Jeunes de Cite-Soleil, a pro-Aristide youth group. After soldiers came to IC's house to question him about his political activity, IC fled to La Gonave and left Haiti on 13 November. He fled along with his cousins, [illegible].

IC's boat was interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) on 14 November. IC had INS cutter interview, which lasted almost an hour. IC was brought to Guantanamo (GTMO), among a group of 245 Haitians. IC explains that of the 245, sixteen were permitted to stay in GTMO, while the remaining 229 were forcibly repatriated to Haiti aboard a USCG cutter on 17 November.

The cutter arrived in Port au Prince on 18 November. The pier was full of soldiers. IC saw foreign journalists on the dock. IC explains that the journalists spoke to some of the repatriates but left before the entire group was disembarked from cutter. Upon disembarkation, the soldiers lined up the repatriates into two rows and then escorted them into the Red Cross building. Inside this building, the Red Cross asked IC for his DOB, address, and signature and gave IC $10. After IC left the Red Cross building, a soldier on the dock asked him for his name and address. IC responded with accurate information.

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