By Michael E. Miller
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"You were the one we were after. Come out," Daniel recalls hearing. The mob carried Jeremie by his arms and legs from the living room. His father yelled, "They took Jeremie!" to wake the house, and Daniel and his parents followed the gang to the street, where a crowd watched as Jeremie was beaten with a club. Daniel sprinted to a neighbor's house for help. When he returned, he saw his brother lying in a pool of blood. He had been partially decapitated. During the nights that followed, Daniel had trouble sleeping for fear the same would happen to him. He went into hiding in a city along the north coast.
"I realized I was the only one left who could help my family," Daniel says. "In Haiti, even if you finish school, it's not easy to find a job to help your family."
Others on the boat have told similar stories of horror in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, according to interviews and federal documents obtained by New Times.
Charles, who wandered the beach that day in Hallandale and is not being identified by his real name, says his uncle made him work like a slave for years after his parents died. He finally escaped at age 16.
Clebert Calixte, a card-carrying election supervisor in his midtwenties from Tortue, says his brother was beheaded in 1996 and a local politician threatened to do the same to him.
Cerisma Federic asserts the leader of a political organization in Port-de-Paix sent men in black bandannas to his home to harass his family after he refused to offer support.
Frannso Brutus, age 32, says his politically active father was found dead, hands tied, head covered, and body riddled with bullet holes, in December 2001. Brutus went on radio to denounce the murder and claims to have been kidnapped twice as a result.
Decidel Blaise contends a political gang set his home ablaze.
The boat was hope for all of them.
"If there are things that make life unendurable in Haiti, people are going to come. Haitians know people die at sea," Forester says. "These are horrendous voyages. People don't make the decision lightly to get in a boat like that."
Federal authorities still try to dissuade them. "The U.S. government continues to discourage any type of illegal immigration. Individuals who take to the sea are putting their lives at risk," says Barbara Gonzalez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.
New Times submitted requests to ICE in July to interview all of these detainees. After almost weekly phone calls and e-mails, interviews were set for November. But by then, Cerisma, Decidel, and Clebert had been deported. A request to interview Charles, whose case is perhaps the most controversial, still had not been cleared as this story went to press.
In early March, word surged around Port-de-Paix, a coastal city that spills into shantytowns, that a sailboat destined for Nassau would soon push off from the nearby island of Tortue.
On maps, Île de la Tortue is a crumb that hovers off the northwest coast in the claw-shape landmass of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Situated along the Windward Passage, the island lies almost directly across from Cuba and was known for its 17th-century buccaneers. The pirate tradition continues. Nowadays the stowed goods are people.
Daniel Batiste bid his mother, François, goodbye in early March. François knew the trip was dangerous, but she encouraged her son to go. "There's no opportunity here," she told him. "I'm not worried, because I send you with God's supervision."
Daniel and about 40 other people from Port-de-Paix paid a few dollars for the ferry ride to Tortue, which takes an hour or two. On March 6 — which most of the refugees recall as the departure date — men, women, and children collected near shore. They boarded the sailboat with only the clothes they were wearing and a scant supply of food and water. A handful of Haitian men was said to have crewed the peeling red, white, and blue ship.
"On those boats, 99 percent of the time, you don't make it anywhere alive, but I figured that wherever I landed, God would show me a way to stay," said Frannso Brutus, who left a wife and three young children behind. "I didn't know it was going to go down the way it did, but if I did, I would have definitely been afraid."
They didn't dare ask if the boat was stolen.
Daniel pitched in about $50 to buy bags of rice, 15 gallons of water, plantains, goat meat, and fish. Brutus had no money to contribute. He boarded with a box of salted crackers and two Coke bottles filled with water. Many of the refugees have insisted they didn't pay for the trip, but family members wonder if smugglers planned to muscle payment upon arrival.
Crew members barked at passengers as they stuffed them into the windowless hull of the boat. The refugees recalled they had to wedge their arms between pinched knees so everyone could fit. The dank space was maybe four feet high. There was no room to sit, so they were forced to squat. They were packed so tightly that the rocking seas caused their backs and chests to rub against one another, much like passengers on slave ships of old. Charles was relieved to see a familiar face during the voyage: an older brother from whom he had long been separated.