Woman moved by Haiti visit Pax Christi group shocked, saddened

July 08, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Wherever Yvonne Small finds injustice, she said, she tries to sow the seeds of peace.

"We are all brothers and sisters, part of God's family," she said. "We have an obligation to help one another."

The Taneytown resident, who is director of the Peace Resource Center in Frederick, often travels to help the less fortunate. On June 25, she and 11 other members of Pax Christi USA, an international Catholic peace organization, went where they believed there was grave injustice -- Haiti.

Returning from a 10-day tour of that impoverished island country, she described overwhelming political and economic problems.

On the trip, members of Pax Christi sought to document allegations of cases where the military government abused human rights and to discover the fate of repatriated refugees.

"Haiti is a country occupied by its own military," she said. "There is total military control of daily life."

September's military coup forced legally elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile, the country was moving toward democracy, she said.

In an effort to return Mr. Aristide to power, the United States has imposed an embargo, preventing American businesses from trading with Haiti. Mrs. Small, however, doubted anything is being done to enforce that embargo.

"We saw literally tons of rice, stamped 'Miami,' at the port," she said. "American oil tankers enter the harbor freely and unload."

She said some of the Haitian people with whom she talked were willing the endure the embargo if it would help to get their leader back.

Mrs. Small was also able to speak with three repatriated refugees. Each had been arrested and held for weeks after returning to their homeland, and one had been beaten, she said.

"They were not re-incorporated like the U.S. government said," Mrs. Small said, and she criticized the United States for refusing to give Haitian "boat people" temporary resident status.

"President Bush said these people are free to go to the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Port-au-Prince and apply for asylum," but in reality, she said, the military closely monitors everyone who goes in and out of that embassy.

In addition to enforcing the embargo, Mrs. Small said the United States must guarantee President Aristide's safety, if he returns. The ousted leader remains in Miami.

"Aristide has said he is willing to speak to anyone who could bring an end to the violence -- but only in Haiti," she said. "The people have great respect for him and great hope that he can change things."

Now, however, Mr. Aristide's supporters must remain in seclusion. A country of 5.5 million people has about 200,000 living in hiding, fearful of retaliation, she said.

"Haiti experienced a totally non-violent change of government, through the ballot box," she said. "It provides an example of what a determined people can do and presents a model of how a Third World country can help itself."

The government must provide for the interests of the poor first, she said. Haitians are deprived of life's most basic essentials. Even clean water is at a premium.

"I saw people opening sewers to get water," said Mrs. Small. "If a few drops trickle down the road, people line up with bottles trying to capture little droplets."

Trucks drive through the towns selling bottled water, she said, but few people can afford to buy.

"I am still in culture shock," she said, three days after returning home. "It's hard to see all we have and all they lack. Just to be able to turn on the faucet and get clean water would be a luxury in Haiti."

Deforestation of the island, once called the Pearl of the Antilles, is almost total. All the rich mahogany trees have been cut for fuel and nothing is left of the lush environment. Hunger is rampant.

"Everywhere, there are people begging with outstretched hands and pointing to their mouths," she said. "It's no scam."

One-room concrete shacks with tin roofs crowd the streets and alleys of towns and provide the only housing for a mass of humanity, she said.

"There is so little space anywhere," she said. "And the awful smell is the first thing you notice as soon as you get into the city."

Most tragic of all are the children, a quarter of whom die before the age of 5, she said.

"I saw children playing in sewerage and garbage dumps," she said. "So many children are sick and get no care."

The dire living conditions have been further exacerbated by random violence, much of which the populace attributes to the military, she said.

"We heard gunfire every night," she said. "You can't imagine the level of violence. People disappear and families often search days for bodies of their loved ones, only to find them dumped in a field."

She is trying to schedule meetings with U.S. lawmakers to discuss her findings.

"I think sympathy is beginning to grow in this country for the Haitian people," she said. "There is injustice and we must sow peace."

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