A Haitian returns home for good

September 27, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Tony Timote was walking quickly now, striding past the tin-roofed shacks along a bumpy street named Fort National, hopping over the open sewer drain, ignoring the broken bottles and scraps of decaying food, concentrating hard even as the music came roaring from radios blaring in one tiny house after another.

He was looking for a 3-year-old girl with pigtails. He was looking for his daughter Joane.

Suddenly, the little girl skipped out from one of the shacks and raced into her father's open arms. And all Mr. Timote could do was hug his daughter tight and cry.

He was tired after two days at sea and three months in a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But he was finally home.

"I wish I had never left," he said. "I never want to go through this again."

Yesterday was like that, a day of bittersweet homecomings in Haiti.

A wave of 221 Haitian refugees -- all volunteers -- was swept from the 270-foot U.S. Coast Guard vessel Northland as thousands looked on at the capital city's main dock. It was the first repatriation of Haitian boat people since the U.S. military landing.

It was yet another big event orchestrated to drive home the message that life here is returning to normal. Surely, there will be more such homecomings in the future, since some 14,000 Haitians remain in detention camps at Guantanamo Bay.

The first wave was formally received by U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing and Army Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton, commander of the U.S. forces in Haiti.

"This is, in effect, a reverse flow of what we had a couple of weeks ago," the ambassador said.

He added that the refugees were "returning in a country far safer than when they left."

The Americans are here now. And the refugees say they are convinced that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is soon to follow.

Each returnee was given $15 and a handshake from the ambassador.

With a military escort, with thousands jamming the roadway, they rode three blocks in five trucks and were deposited in front of a Red Cross shelter.

And then they were on their own, surrounded by hundreds of inquisitive bystanders and dozens of minicams.

They were tired and disappointed, dressed in tattered clothing and well-worn sandals. They clung to dusty plastic trash bags filled with their possessions. They searched the crowds for recognizable faces.

They told their stories.

Ruth Petitfreres, 23, was eight months pregnant when she went to sea July 4. She returned home with a 26-day-old baby, James, tucking the boy in her arms as she sat on the cracked pavement.

"I am so glad to be home," she said.

Mirlande Joseph, 30, said she fled Haiti because she wanted a better life for her 16-month-old daughter, Fifi.

"People don't live well in this country. They get killed. We were not safe. We were obliged to leave," Mrs. Joseph said, playing with the red identification tag wrapped around Fifi's left ankle.

"There were many of us on that boat," she said. "I was afraid of the sea."

But she wasn't afraid to return. Like all the rest aboard the Coast Guard vessel, she was willing to take a chance on a new Haiti.

"They say they are going to give us back our president," Mrs. Joseph said. "They asked us to fight for our country."

Mr. Timote is tired of fighting. He is 34 years old with circles under his eyes and a mustache above his lip. He fled the island in fear on June 28 after two of his friends were murdered. He hopped aboard a rickety wooden boat with 60 others in Gonaives and spent two days at sea bound for Nassau in the Bahamas.

"We told the U.S. Coast Guard that we didn't want to go to America," he said. "They picked us up anyway."

He spent three months at Guantanamo Bay and said he hated every moment.

He didn't like sleeping in a tent. He couldn't stomach the food. Worse still, he said, the Americans showed little respect for the Haitians.

"I understand why it had to be like that," he said. "They did not want to encourage other Haitians to come."

When he returned to Port-au-Prince yesterday, he said he was excited to see the harbor and mountains. But he also wanted to tell others of his journey, to warn them not to risk their lives by fleeing.

"Things are bad in Guantanamo," he told those who encircled him.

The crowd listened intently.

And then, Mr. Timote was off, hoisting his plastic bag filled with two blankets and three dozen disposable diapers, hitching a ride to his old neighborhood.

He was excited as the car made its way through familiar streets, stopping at a pile of rocks that marked his neighborhood.

"My family doesn't even know I'm alive," he said.

Yet somehow, he said, he felt that his family would be there, that his wife and four children would greet him warmly.

As he made his way up his old street, he clasped hands with friends and found his youngest daughter and headed home to the one-room shack with two chairs, a wooden table, two mattresses and a dirt floor. His wife was out trying to round up food for dinner, neighbors said.

Mr. Timote could wait, could spend a few more moments with his daughter Joane.

She looked at her father and said: "I never want you to go again."

And the father looked down at his daughter, and said: "Don't worry. I'm staying."

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