By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Swami Lalitananda planned to hit the gym this past March 28. But then she decided on an early-morning stroll along Hallandale Beach.
She crossed A1A and watched the 15 mile-per-hour winds whip whitecaps offshore. A few minutes later, shortly after 8 a.m., the blue-eyed, 64-year-old retired teacher spotted dozens of people plunging into the surf from a tiny wooden boat with a shredded sail and tipping mast. They slapped at waves and scrambled to shore.
She stopped dead. From the line of luxury high-rises to her left, residents used binoculars to spy the scene unfolding below them.
A few feet from Lalitananda, two policewomen waded into the water to fish out the motionless body of a gaunt black man. He wore blue plaid boxer shorts and a ripped mesh basketball jersey. The rescue workers laid him on his back with his feet pointing toward the ocean.
As she peered at the young man, Lalitananda said a prayer. "God, if there's any life in him, let him be resuscitated. Let him know he really reached his goal — the shores of America."
Nearby, Charles, a young orphan, trudged through the chop to the beach. Then he began pacing, looking for his older brother, who had disappeared during the voyage. Charles clung to the hope that his brother had been locked away somewhere on the boat.
Two crew members, he would later claim, saw him and growled, "We'll kill you if you tell anyone your brother died."
Daniel Batiste, 25 years old, also waded ashore. He had assumed his death would have come before this day. It was the first land he had seen in 22 days. Where am I? he thought and joined dozens of other dazed Haitian men, women, and children on the sandy beach.
Rescue workers shepherded Charles, Daniel, and 99 others from the spot behind The Beach Club's opulent condo towers to a nearby fire station, and draped them, shivering and bruised, in white blankets. They were offered water and dry clothes to replace garments that reeked of fuel.
After a few minutes, Lalitananda left the scene. She couldn't stop looking behind her at the corpse on the beach. He must have been a very good soul, she thought.
The man pulled to shore would later be identified as 24-year-old Haitian refugee Lifaite Lully. He was pronounced dead at 8:15 a.m., and his body was covered with a white sheet. Soon the boat wobbled free from a sandbar and ran aground on the beach. Authorities found one refugee onboard in shock and tightly grasping two ropes.
The men, women, and children had boarded that flimsy 40-foot sailboat to escape curses, slavery, political slaughter, and hunger. Smugglers had crammed them into the hold like animals, along with concrete bags to prevent capsizing. They had lost their way, and after food and water were exhausted, survived for a week on Colgate toothpaste, salty rice, and seawater.
Right minds wafted to sea. Those onboard the ship claim crew members bludgeoned some passengers and killed one, maybe more, before they finally made it to the States. It was the largest landing of Haitians in the continental United States since October 2002, when more than 200 migrants reached Key Biscayne, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Local Haitians and advocates sprang into action. A 15-day hunger strike, a massive street protest, and headlines across America demanded fairness for the troubled souls. Then the noise stopped. For the past eight months, bewildered family members have watched as the government has warehoused their loved ones in secrecy behind barbed wire in Pompano Beach and sent them back to Haiti one by one. Prayers to God or vodou spirits haven't saved them. Nor have immigration lawyers.
"The whole world saw them on the TV," says Cedelia Calixte, a 28-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident and godmother of a refugee in his twenties who was deported on Halloween. Family members have not heard from him since. "They put them away like they were going to do something, and when everybody was sleeping, they sent them away, piece by piece."
From some angles, the Broward Transitional Center on Powerline Road in Pompano looks like the Quinta Inn it was supposed to become before the government took over and opened the center in 1998. People lounge on benches. Soda machines and pay phones punctuate outdoor hallways. Balconies face a courtyard with a shoddy putt-putt course where Midwestern families might have slathered on sunscreen to tan in the Florida sun.
But here pay-per-view is not an option. Small rooms fit six in bunk beds. A line of hundreds of refugees in crossing-guard orange snakes through halls and spills outside at mealtime. Fences at least 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire divide women from men.
Up to four hundred men and 200 women live at the center. They await immigration court decisions on their requests for asylum in the United States. Asian, Hispanic, and Eastern European faces are sprinkled throughout the place. Five months after the landing in Hallandale Beach, a few of the Haitians remain. Many have been sent home to a country corroded with crime and poverty.