20 April 2006

Haunted, Not Saintly

There seems to be an opinion being formed by some of my friends that I feel needs to be immediately debunked.. NO! I am neither an angel nor a saint!! Yes, go ahead. Laugh. I did... But please know that I'm not the one trying to make these absurd comparisons... Yesterday while chatting online, I was first accused by E of being "a saint". Then, not two hours later during a flurry of emails, B asked me, "are you an angel? me thinks perhaps you just might be!"

(In the interest of full disclosure; E made her comments after receiving a care package from me in the mail. To celebrate her running in the Paris marathon, I'd sent her all of the things I knew she'd most want from the US; organic pasta and energy bars, spicy bloody mary mix, a movie about Scrabble, wasabi peas, and beer.. And B made hers since over the past few days I've been fortunate enough to find myself in various situations where I could help her out. For example, helping her move- while it was raining..)

But before anyone else starts to believe that I do these things solely due to some deep altruistic tendency, I feel the truth should be explained.. True, part of me does things for others because of the great examples of others (my G'ma V for instance) that influence me. However, mostly I do it because I struggle daily to cope with inescapable, sometimes overwhelming guilt. Guilt that I will live with for the rest of my life. And because of that guilt, I only seem to function properly when I'm doing things for others..

Guilty about what?? Well, it's a long story. One that begins in January of 1991. My Army unit was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tens of thousands of Haitians had fled their country after a coup. The situation was quickly deteriorating into turmoil and so they left everything they had, climbed into whatever looked remotely seaworthy, and set off in hopes of reaching Miami. Well, we couldn't have that happen, so Bush (the elder) sent out the Coast Guard to round them up and detain them at Gitmo until they could be processed and returned to Haiti. Camps had been erected to house the "migrants" and my platoon was in charge of securing Delta Camp, a quasi jail. It was there that my view of the world was forever changed..

There were usually 10-25 people in Delta Camp. The "cells" were divided into gender and age, each with row upon row of concertina wire and an army issue tent. The people housed there weren't bad people. Some had been thought to be causing tension in the main camp, others were thought to have stolen things (though these people really only had the clothes on their backs so I don't know what they would have stolen). I found each one to be genuine and friendly, and made many friends, though we often had trouble with the language barrier.

Suddenly things in the main camp deteriorated. There were rumors of pending riots. Being locked up for months will cause even the most patient person to lose hope. In an effort to show these people who was "boss", the US Marshals were being brought in. The night before this planned show of force, I was on duty at the main gate and, as I often did, I spent my time visiting with the guys in the camp. There was one who spoke fairly good English so I asked him, "why?".. Why had they left Haiti. I really wanted to understand. He unbuttoned his shirt and showed me the recently healing bullet holes in his chest. He explained that the people who had taken charge in Haiti had come into his village. They had killed anyone who had opposed them, including most of this his family. He said he'd rather die than go back.. I assured him that "we" would take care of things and he could trust us..

We talked until it was time for them to go to bed, and I sat there the rest of the night knowing what was to happen the following morning. Knowing that our camp was being "cleared", and many of my friends, including the man with the bullet holes were to be forced onto boats and shipped back to Haiti. But, at the time, I believed in my country. I believed that we were there to help these people. We had been told that a peace keeping force was being deployed to Haiti, and soon things would be improving for these people. And with all the naiveté of a US soldier, I trusted that we were trying to do what was right..

Shortly before dawn the following day. US Marshals, in full riot gear, stormed the camp. They used zip-ties to handcuff most of them for transport. Those who had a chance, tried to resist. Several even attempted suicide, using whatever they could find to slice at their wrists and necks (we kept any harmful objects from them so their attempts were in vain, and the wounds were just superficial).. I wasn't on duty, but I took my camera and went to the dock. There, I watched my friends, still handcuffed, being marched up the ramp to the boat. And I trusted that we were doing the right thing..

A few weeks later, I spent my day off in the main camp. A friend of mine from another platoon showed me around. I had such a great time. The people were so friendly, especially the kids. Some of them had fashioned utility belts from ropes and juice boxes, then constructed MP bands from cardboard and walked around imitating us. My friend also took me to the "orphanage", a separate camp for unaccompanied minors. I spoke to a young man who was about 9, asking him where his family was. He looked at me with a blank expression on his face and told me that they'd been killed. I had my friend take a picture of me with this young man, then handed him a 50 cent piece that I'd long been carrying in my pocket, and walked away believing that we were going to help him..

When my unit returned to Louisiana, we were given "Humanitarian Service" medals for the way we had treated the Haitians during our deployment. And I went about my life feeling proud of a job well done... Then, 5 years later, reality reached out and knocked me in the stomach..

I was driving long haul in my new life as a trucker. One night while picking up a load of Clairol in Connecticut, I recognized a familiar accent. I was signing for paperwork and asked the shipping clerk where he was from. He said he was from Haiti, and I proceded to tell him of my time at Gitmo and of the nice people I had met there. He looked at me with such contempt that I was taken aback. He then told me that those people we had sent back to Haiti had mostly "disappeared". They'd been killed by the coup that had wrecked such havoc there, though some had been imprisoned. Those people, my friends who I had grown to love, had never been "helped" as I had assured them they would be, and I am still unable to process the fact that most of them are probably dead.. How could I have been so stupid? What had I been a part of??

I know that rationale deems that what happened was not my fault. That I'd just been following orders and had done what I could to help these people. Still, I know I will be forever haunted by their memory. Haunted mainly by a ghost named Thibadeaux.

Thibadeaux was one of the men who was at Delta Camp during the entire time I was assigned there. He spoke no English, but was often quick to offer a smile as he walked around camp with his bible.. I keep his photo on the sideboard in my dining room. I do this as a reminder of just how lucky I am. Every day I wake knowing the value of everything I have. Regardless of how bad things seem, I never let it get me down. For to do so would mean to dishonor his memory. I smile through everything, because he can't. Because I'll never forget my friends who gave everything they had and then gave their lives in hope that they could find what I have on my very worst day..

I'll never accept that I deserve what I have, and as many of my friends can attest, I find it almost impossible to do anything for myself.. At the same time, I'll never feel as though I've done enough for others, but I try my best in an effort to quell the demons that will forever haunt me.. A "saint"?.. An "angel"? Hardly.. Just someone who is coping with things the best way I know how....

And now for a short history lesson...

Did you ever stop to wonder why there are African descendents on Haiti and surrounding islands, or why you should even stop to concern yourself with the situation that continues there today? Being how our fundamentally great country has it's foundation built on the backs of slave labor, you really should..

Columbus landed in Hispaniola, which is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in October 1492. The island was inhabited at that time by Arawak Indians, and Columbus described it in this way, "Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful... the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold...." The Indians "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone..."

And what did Columbus do in this place he called a "miracle"? In 1495 he took 500 Arawak slaves back to Spain with him, but 200 of them died on the way. He then ordered all of the Arawaks "14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper coins to hang around their necks. Indians found without the a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death." There really wasn't much gold in Haiti, and within two years half of the 250,000 Indians had either committed suicide or been killed. The rest were used as slave labor, and died by the thousands. By 1550, there were only 500 Indians left. By 1650 none remained..

The island eventually became a French slave post where slaves were taken to be traded to the US, and following a revolt by the slaves and the end of slavery in the US, it evolved into what remains a chaotic state. Perhaps if there was something remaining on Haiti that we needed, oil perhaps, we'd all care a bit more.. And yet, while the Haitian people continue to suffer, we all stand along roads every October and watch parades to celebrate "Columbus Day".. Such a great hero he was, huh??? Funny, we never learned "history" in those books they gave us in school...

Note: The previous 3 paragraphs was a summary of information found in "A People's History of the United States : 1492-Present" by Howard Zinn.. It's a book that everyone should read..


Blogger tif-do said...

I was just sitting here in my little bubble. Thanks for the eye opener. I forget how big this world is, and how fortunate I am. I forget how many people suffer and are forgotten about, and are treated injustily. Thank you for the reminder!

4/20/2006 5:23 PM

Blogger leaner said...

Oh. My. God.
Seriously, I had no idea, about any of that.
I am sorry that our country is so messed up, I am sorry that I know nothing, and in my little "bubbled" existance I am so naive.
I think in some ways I fear knowledge about things like that, because I want to be naive, I want to be a kid again, when I knew nothing about the horrors in our world.
Thank you for the slit in my bubble, it really is time to grow up, and know about the world. It is time.

4/21/2006 8:35 AM

Blogger lvh said...

I remember that picture of you and the little boy and I remember telling you that you needed to bring him home with you. Then you said, "I'd have to bring them all". I must admit, after you returned from Gitmo, I never paid any attention to what happened with those people - I too thought they would be ok.

4/24/2006 8:01 AM


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