Death of Boniface

Jan. 11, 1988, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Bob Corbett

The phone call that evening was strange. A voice in English told my daughter that Boniface, a 17 street boy who lived with us, had been in a motorcycle accident and taken to General Hospital. Then he hung up without giving any chance for a reply.

We couldn't get to General Hospital that evening. There were road blocks everywhere as the army arrested youth as part of a terror campaign to keep voting low for Sunday's election. Phone calls to General Hospital are worthless. We passed a worrisome evening.

I left home early the next morning heading for the hospital. When I inquired at the information desk about Boniface St. Pierre, I was gruffly told that he was dead. However, mistaken identities are common in Haiti. I persisted and asked if he was in the morgue. Yes, I was told, that's building 13.

I wandered around the grounds until I found the morgue. The door keeper told me it was impossible to view the bodies, there was no one to show them. But he was just sitting at his desk. I didn't understand at first. After my third inquiry as to why he couldn't show me, I understood. A bribe was in order, as it is for so much of life--and, in this case, death--in Haiti.

One dollar later I was ushered into a large room, perhaps 15x20. There were piles and piles of dead babies. They were stacked, rather heaped one upon the other. When the keeper had asked about Boniface's age I had replied in a somewhat distracted moment that the was a "ti gason," a little boy. He has always seemed that to me. But Boniface was 17. I had been taken to the babies' morgue.

The keeper, in a clear attempt to help, had pushed over the newest pile of bodies. They clattered all over. He said, "Now you can see better." I explained that Boniface was a teenager. So, he took me next door. Another room, somewhat larger, was filled with children, youth and adults. Bodies were just thrown about randomly on the floor, on top of one another, sprawled in odd configurations. 90% were naked with no sheet or anything.

I found Boniface. He looked cold in this chilliest place in all of Haiti. There were no signs of the head injury that had killed him immediately. But, no doubt, it was my friend. Arranging to retrieve the body for a funeral would be difficult. This had been an accident, a police matter. It would take a couple of days and at least $100 in bribes to get Boniface out. In death and life Haitians must pay to avoid the authorities.

I left the morgue in a sad and somewhat shocked state. I've seen and experienced a lot in Haiti, but nothing quite like this. I was deep in thought--about Boniface, about the callous treatment of the bodies, about the ever-presence of death in Haitian society. In my St. Louis world death is taken care of by others. For most of us death is unusual, serious, sad business. In Haiti it's a daily reality. I wandered on, thoughts alternating between memories of Boniface and reflections on what I had just been through.

My meandering path took me past the huge white palace and to Rue Capois, a major street of fancy hotels and restaurants. People were crowding the sidewalks, Haiti was alive with vibrant life. Ahead of me people were doing little hops over an obstacle in the sidewalk. As I came to the spot it was a dead girl, perhaps 16-17 years old. She had obviously simply laid down and died. She was woefully thin. Someone had already taken her shoes. She had nothing else but the thin rags of a tattered dress. I asked some passer-bys what would happen. "Oh," they said, "the police will come pick her up." But the police were busy rounding up the living for election day. I tried to hire a cab to return to the morgue, only 6 or 7 blocks away. This is normally a 30 cent ride. The cabby wanted $1.00 if I was going to carry the body. I paid and we returned to the morgue.

The keeper was surprised to see me again. I told my story. No, no one around there knew her name. No, she had no papers. Ah, then nothing could be done. But, another bribe and he changed his mind. As I watched he rolled back Boniface's door and from two feet out in the hall way he heaved the thin body in on top of the others.


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