Church volunteers bring supplies, hope to beleaguered Haitians

June 09, 1994|By Alisa Samuels and Andrea F. Siegel | Alisa Samuels and Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

The volunteers from St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Columbia and a Glen Burnie Catholic parish had just returned from their weeklong humanitarian mission in rural Haiti and were looking forward to a restful night in Port-au-Prince.

Then the shelling started.

"We heard gunshots, screaming and yelling," said Jacki Coyle, 43, pastoral associate at Holy Trinity Church in Glen Burnie. "I thought we were going to die."

The women had traveled to Haiti to bring supplies and hope from the United States to the parish of St. George, which extends in a 42-mile radius from the village of Bassin Bleu in northwest Haiti.

Amid the suffering and oppression of the Haitian population, the local delegation also witnessed something divine, said Joanne Kehoe, 47, of Columbia, a member of St. John's.

"We have seen the face of God in them," Mrs. Kehoe said. "In the midst of all this, they still are joyous. . . . They can still see life as a gift.

"For myself, I think that's real faith."

Ms. Coyle had visited Haiti in November as part of a Cry for Justice project, sponsored by religious and human rights agencies. She promised then that she would not forget the Haitian parish. Since her return, Holy Trinity has sent shoes and brought one of the Haitian priests to visit Glen Burnie.

The Marylanders returned home Tuesday night, frightened by what they had had experienced, encouraged by the Haitians they had met and determined to share their stories with anyone who would listen. They hope to meet with religious groups and the congressional Black Caucus.

On their trip to Haiti, they brought medicines donated by area physicians, toothbrushes sent by dentists, money, food, toys, school supplies and candy "to bring a little joy to the children," said Ms. Coyle. Their cargo was stuffed into eight duffel bags.

They brought back two dozen rolls of film and tales of poverty, murder, rape, and people terrorized by the military and its agents. They arrived at the airport in Port-au-Prince to find a military band playing "Yellow Bird" near a "Welcome to Haiti" banner.

"It's a place where you could lose hope in God, where you could look up and say, 'Where the hell is God?' " Ms. Coyle said.

And yet, said Sharon Scibek, a human resources worker and member of Holy Trinity, the Haitians have not lost hope.

"We were empowered by them, by having them risk their lives to meet with me," said Ms. Scibek, 42. "There is no way you can meet with them and not tell their story."

The women said they experienced some of the dangers Haitians face every day. On one journey around the mission outposts in the parish, a military agent stopped their vehicle and accused a priest of misdeeds. The priest was questioned at gunpoint before they were allowed to pass, Ms. Coyle said.

Only women and children lived in one hamlet they visited. The men were in hiding. Another village's 21 huts had been burned to the ground.

One man told them government agents took his sons in the middle of the night, beat and jailed them, then sent word that they would be killed if he did not pay $1,700.

Ms. Kehoe said she feared for the safety of the people who had befriended them. The military and its civilian agents have a stranglehold on Haiti, she said.

One mother said soldiers invaded her home one night and threatened to kill her and her three children if the 13-year-old son didn't rape the mother and her young daughter, said Ms. Kehoe. The boy's mother begged him to do as ordered, and he did. Then the soldiers raped her and her daughter.

The brother and sister were so ashamed they ran away.

"We asked [the mother] if she wanted asylum," Ms. Kehoe said, pausing, her voice cracking. "She didn't want asylum. She wanted to stay and heal the wounds of her children and her country."

But some are intent on leaving. The women noted that as they rested on a beach where the clothes of people who didn't survive boat trips to the United States had washed ashore, people were building new vessels and planning their escape.

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