Haitians Sent Home

Refugees fled slavery, slaughter, and starvation, and got rejected.

The first few days, spirits were high. Sleep came with exhaustion. Passengers sang folk songs, chatted, prayed, and shared food.

The smugglers blocked the only exit to fresh air. They allowed passengers on deck to relieve themselves, which was a welcome chance to stretch legs. Their shoulders and backsides chafed against the sides of the hold and then stung like wasp bites when salt water poured in. A putrid wash of vomit, sweat, and sea sloshed around their ankles.

If there's wind, Haitians say, the sailing trek from Tortue to Nassau can be completed in two to three days. The typical windless trip takes five days, tops.

The 30-foot sailboat that carried more than 100 Haitian refugees to Hallandale Beach.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The 30-foot sailboat that carried more than 100 Haitian refugees to Hallandale Beach.
Swami Lalitananda sits at the spot where she watched the Haitians come ashore.
C. Stiles
Swami Lalitananda sits at the spot where she watched the Haitians come ashore.

But five days into the voyage, there was no land. "We were supposed to have seen land after two days," Brutus says. "But when we didn't, whoever believed in God was praying to God, and whoever believed in Satan was praying to Satan."

The mood shifted. Sharing stopped. Around day 15, Daniel says, most of the water and food was gone. They boiled rice with salt water. From then on, Daniel survived on routine. Each morning he grabbed a fistful of ocean-washed rice. Then he squirted toothpaste to banish the salt from his palate and to make his parched mouth salivate.

In a federal statement, Charles said his long-lost brother's mind softened into delirium. Then one morning he awoke and the brother was gone. He asked whether anyone had seen him. No, everyone answered. He concluded his brother was murdered or committed suicide. Fearful, he stopped asking.

Using frayed rope, smugglers bound some who threatened to jump ship, passengers said. Those who became unruly or hallucinated were bludgeoned with hammers, wooden boards, and bats, refugees told lawyers. Passengers recalled many people being forced overboard, disappearing, or committing suicide during those desperate days. After hearing reports of violence, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in June called on the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate. The office would not confirm an investigation.

The ghastly voyage has since been woven into some relatives' minds through tales of magic.

Miami pastor Jean Valsaint counted 11 relatives including Charles on the ship. He heard that some of those who hurled themselves overboard didn't sink. They nimbly strolled along the surface. Good-bye, they shouted and waved to the hungry souls. Their bodies faded into the blue oblivion. One man was said to have spun magic to escape. He was the first person reported to have set foot on Hallandale Beach while others grasped the boat's splintered sides and crashed belly-first into the foamy green.

Lifaite Lully, the man who rescue workers dragged onto the beach March 28, it would seem, hadn't had the same magic.

On the last Saturday of this past March, Haitian flags and protesters filled the parking lot in front of Cool J's Urban Footwear at NE 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, across the street from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Only three days had passed since the boat landed on Hallandale Beach, and the Haitian community was pressing the government to let the voyagers stay.

Activists standing on a stage barked messages in Kreyol and English through a megaphone. Around them hundreds of people danced, chanted, and sang. Drums were beaten. Festive music blared. A young woman in a sexy sundress held high a sign that read "I Came by Boat. Today I Am a U.S. Citizen and I Vote."

Father Gérard Jean-Juste, who once was discussed as a candidate for president of Haiti, took the mike. "Brothers and sisters," he boomed, "we thank all of you who since Wednesday have been supporting the Haitians who arrived by boat.... There are good Americans. If only there were Americans in the White House like the ones who were on Hallandale Beach."

He began a chant: "What do we want?"

The crowd answered, "Freedom!"

Joyce Jennings had been attending demonstrations demanding fair treatment of Haitians almost since she arrived from Haiti by plane 32 years ago. "They're treated as criminals; they are treated like dogs," she says. "Other people come and they are welcome. We're not welcome."

Theresa Smith, a 47-year-old African-American, was there too. She had been so moved by the images on television that she traveled from Hollywood to attend the protest. Smith held a sign that read "Freedom Now" on one side and "We Shall Overcome" on the other. "I was born in America," Smith said, "but I have ancestors who came from another country. And we came by boat. Let the Haitians go!"

Jean-Juste warned from the stage: "I hope this week we will see freedom for all our Haitian brothers and sisters. Otherwise we will come back!"

The protest ended, and the hundreds of people who filled the street left. They didn't return.

Henry Petithomme, a 32-year-old Haitian-American, didn't surrender so easily. On April 4, the North Miami real estate agent wolfed down a Denny's breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon, and hash browns, and then vowed a hunger strike. When he ran out of energy in the days that followed, he laid down on a cot behind the pews at the humble St. Paul Episcopal Church on North Miami Avenue. He kept a photo of his two-year-old daughter nearby.

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