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#1868: Stark choices: Risk death at sea or life of misery at home (fwd)


Published Sunday, January 16, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 The Haitian Trap 
 Stark choices: Risk death at sea or life of misery at home 

 BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA_____ Miami Herald Staff Writer 

 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Yves Pamphile walked off the U.S. Coast Guard cutter
that repatriated him back to Haiti and watched his fellow
 countrymen pick through black plastic garbage bags searching for
belongings, the simple scraps that are left of their lives. Pamphile
didn't have it so bad. He was wearing a pair of black Tommy Hilfiger
jeans and had a cell phone strapped to his swimming trunks.
 He carried his toothbrush in his pocket. Pamphile is what's called a
''coyote,'' the person who was tapped by the smuggler to round up
willing and desperate passengers for the ill-fated New Year's Eve voyage
that brought 413 Haitians, Dominicans and Chinese within two miles of
Key Biscayne. In the months before the trip, the 26-year-old
 man -- better known to his friends as ''Babou''-- hustled hard and
fast. When it was time to leave Haiti, he ferried two Chinese passengers
 on a five-day bus journey to Tortue Island, a desolate land bridge in
northwestern Haiti that is ground zero for human smuggling to the
 United States. Once on board the home-made rickety ship,
 Babou was given God-like responsibility: He decided what passengers
were forced below on the bloated fishing boat to the cramped and
 stench-filled lower hold. And he decided who got to come up for air.
 It was a daunting task of life and death. By his own account, Babou
believes at least 10 people suffocated to death or jumped overboard
 to escape the inhumane conditions. ''I cried when I saw those people
jump overboard,'' he said. ''But there was nothing I could do. They were
crazy.'' Even after the grueling four-day voyage, he never made it to
U.S. shores. But Babou, with his baggy jeans and hip-hop style,
represents today's younger, more savvy ''boat person.'' He doesn't
apologize for doing whatever it takes to find a better life. No matter
 the cost in human lives. Transporting boat people has become big
 business in Haiti, with the potential for millions of dollars in
profits. Smugglers make their riches by banking on desperation.
 The desire to leave Haiti is so great, that smugglers know they can get
people to withstand slave-era ship conditions -- traveling navel to
navel in musty cargo holds and defecating in pots for days -- while
charging luxury liner prices. The going rate for this voyage to Miami
was $5,000 -- half of it due up front, and the rest due after arrival in
Miami. To impoverished Haitians, the figure is astounding -- more than
most of them could hope to earn in five years. ''What I've noticed
different from the early '90s until now are the kind of people that
 are going,'' said Lt. Commander Todd Gatlin, the top U.S. Coast Guard
official in Haiti. ''Before, they were dirt poor farmers. Now they are
young kids. Many of them can fit into any mall in the United States.'
 The Haitian boat people who washed up on Florida's shores by the
thousands during the last two decades were mostly displaced peasants
fleeing political violence who jumped on flimsy boats with little
planning. But with more surveillance of U.S. waters and stricter
immigration laws, the stakes are rising. To make it work, smugglers have
to do more. That means getting passengers to the isolated shores of
Tortue Island, placing them in safe houses on the island until the boat
is ready for departure, whisking them away in cars if they're lucky
 enough to reach dry land and housing them in Miami until the smuggled
 passengers can pay off their debt. Babou said he did whatever he was
asked to do to help reduce his own $15,000 debt to the smuggler -- the
cost of transporting him, his father and sister. He and others who
talked to The Herald refused to identify the smuggler. They said he was
providing a much needed service. ''When you arrive in Miami, the
organizers of the boat have a big house where they receive you,'' Babou
claimed. ''Once you pay for the voyage, they deliver you to your


 People are born into poverty that lasts a lifetime Like many aspects of
life in Haiti, the journey is about hope and sacrifice.
 Rhomy Jean, 37, makes his living as a bus driver navigating the rocky
stretch between Gonaives and Port-de-Paix, the most traveled route to
Tortue Island, the last stop out for smuggling. Many of his passengers
are on a one-way road-trip to catch a Miami-bound boat. Theirs is a last
ditch run from the ongoing political stalemate that has paralyzed
 the country since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide begrudgingly stepped
down from office in 1996 and handed over power to his elected successor,
Rene Preval. Since then, the country's young democracy has been        
repeatedly tested. Preval dissolved the parliament when its term ended
last January -- leaving nine-elected office  holders to run the country.
Elections to select new legislators, now scheduled for March, have been
repeatedly postponed.The woes are overwhelming for most Haitians.
Children are born into poverty that lasts a lifetime. From their    
earliest days, they toil in the fields, sell in the market and climb
steep mountains just to fetch pails of water.For adults, there are few
jobs and little hope for a better future.''They live in misery. They are
hungry. They can't find  jobs,'' Jean said of his passengers.
''Everyday, life is  more difficult. We have no leadership.'' In the
search for a life beyond misery, they will do  almost anything.

 When Babou and his two Chinese charges began their journey Dec. 19 in
Port-au-Prince, they traveled along a so-called underground railroad, a
carefully planned route used by hundreds of other Haitian passengers
 bound for the same boat. The two men flew to Haiti from China, hoping
for a way into the United States. Leaving on a tap-tap, a brightly
colored Haitian bus, the group first traveled to Gonaives, a dusty port
town. There, they spent two nights at the Sterling Hotel, Babou said,
where he had work to do meeting other passengers and relaying
instructions. Soon they were on their way again, traveling on a second
tap-tap along the rocky, cactus-lined road between Gonaives and
Port-de--Paix, long known as a haven for smugglers because of it's
isolated location. Although only 50 miles divide the two provincial
towns, it's a two and a half hour drive in a four-wheel drive jeep. For
those taking public transportation, which most do, it's a crowded,
jostling ride at high speeds -- with no seat belts. Some passengers
brave even higher risks, sitting on top of buses alongside duffel bags
 and suitcases. In Port-de-Paix, the group spent two nights at the Hotel
Bienvenue, Babou said, before continuing by road to the coastal town of
Saint Louis du Nord. There, they boarded a sailboat to Tortue Island,
arriving on Christmas Eve. Desolate and barren, the island of 29,000
people lacks electricity, phones and running water. There are no signs
of cars, but there are plenty of boats and lots of boat building in
plain view. Long known as the Far West of Haiti, Tortue is one of
 the most isolated corners of Haiti and carries a reputation for piracy.
 Babou said he was eager to get to Tortue and make himself useful to the
 smuggler. The two first met three months ago, Babou said, when he paid
him the equivalent of $3,000 in U.S. currency for the trip. Babou said
he raised the cash by giving the keys of his van to a friend as
collateral for a loan. Following their encounter, Babou said he realized
he could help finance his own trip -- and bring his sister and father
along on the journey -- by doing favors for the smuggler. He began
scouting for potential passengers. The best incentive was yet to come.
Babou said the smuggler offered to pay him $5,000 for each of the two
Chinese passengers that he helped deliver to dry land in Miami.
 ''When I got to Miami and I handed them over safely, at that time I
would be paid,'' he said. As Babou and his passengers were making their
way toward Tortue, so too were dozens and dozens of others, including
Yvena Rhinvil, a 33-year-old pregnant Haitian mother traveling with her
two young children and her sister. She had spent months preparing for
the trip. Along the way, a bus carrying the family on the rocky road
crashed into an oncoming car and Rhinvil was seriously injured.
Hospitalized for just a day in Gonaives, she ignored a doctor's
 orders to stay under medical supervision because she feared missing her
ride to America. The family continued on to Tortue Island where
 they camped out with other passengers until it was time to get on the
boat. Passengers knew there was a deadline to be met: the boat had to
make Miami for New Year's Eve. The smuggler who masterminded the journey
had hoped the end-of-the-century fireworks display would provide a
foolproof cover to slip into Miami. If they didn't make it to shore,
 they were counting on a show of leniency from U.S. immigration


 No one can say with certainty how many died at sea Once the boat set
sail from Tortue, Babou assumed his other responsibility: overseeing the
narrow stairwell between the upper and lower deck on the crowded
 60-foot by 25-foot fishing vessel. Hundreds of passengers were crammed
 downstairs, and it was Babou's job to decide which people could switch
places with those on the upper deck for up to 30 minutes. Many of the
passengers had to stay below to keep the vessel from tipping over.
 The boat churned slowly through the ocean toward Miami, its passengers
 becoming more and more anxious and agitated. Conditions were wretched:
The squalid tight quarters were littered with food, clothing and pots of
urine and feces. There were no bathrooms on board. Some passengers
couldn't take it. Instead, they panicked and jumped overboard.
 Others reportedly suffocated. No one can say with certainty just how
many died at sea. Babou said the suicides were hard to watch -- but if
he had tried to stop them, he would have endangered his own life.
 Many passengers became sick. One of them was Yvena Rhinvil. Early in
the voyage, she was moved to another part of the boat and became
separated from her children Marc, 9 and Germanie, 8. Shortly after
midnight on New Year's Eve, the boat made it within miles of Miami.
 Passengers on the upper deck were treated to a rare glimpse of
fireworks and the beautifully-lit coastline. But it was just a matter of
time before the illusion would give way to familiar reality. The boat
was intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter, gave chase and grounded
offshore. Only four sick Haitian women, including Rhinvil, were taken to
shore for medical reasons. That twist of fate would forever change her
life. Two days later, everyone else -- even Rhinvil's two small children
-- were taken back to Haiti aboard a pair of U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
Although separated from her children, Rhinvil is among the lucky: She's
been granted a political asylum hearing to determine whether she can
stay in the United States. The other 409 repatriated passengers landed
in  Haiti last week. On the docks of the wharf in Port-au-Prince,
passengers tried to recover   their meager belongings from trash bags --
 including flashlights, clothing, passports and  teddy bears.
Everywhere, there was the sense of despair and defeat.                
''I feel sick,'' said Similien Silfida, 22, an unemployed high school
drop-out who had  hoped for a real New Year's Eve
celebration.            Dressed in a black ball grown, with red polish
on her toes, Silfida looked more like she was  coming back from a party
than an ill-fated boat trip. She carried a string of fake pearls in her
clear plastic purse. ''I took the boat because I live in misery here,''
she said. ''I
 would like an office job.''


 One million Haitians might leave if they had the chance U.S. officials
in Haiti believe that as many as one million Haitians -- the total
 number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from around the world each
year -- would leave Haiti if they thought they could get away with it.
That theory is based on opinion polls that show 70 to 90 percent of the
people support leaving the country. ''There are a million people in this
country who would pick up and leave. This is not an exaggeration,'' said
a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''It creates
regional rancor because Haiti is seen as a bad neighbor.''
 Legal migration from Haiti is strictly controlled. Every year, 20,000
Haitians apply for immigrant visas -- about 9,000 are granted, according
to embassy officials. Another 50,000 Haitians apply for tourist visas --
about 19,000 are approved. Because of the difficult odds, Haitians
complain they have no choice but to risk illegal entry into the United
States -- even if means traveling like human cargo, which they sometimes
do in the countryside. A group of 150 rice farmers on their way to
market in the northern town of Marmalade last week traveled just that
way, inside a cargo container loaded on a semi-truck, layered against
each other like a jigsaw puzzle with huge bags of rice propped between
them. The truck's owner Moremcy Cebien, 33, said that he hasn't tried to
leave Haiti, but if he saw a boat leaving for for Miami he would take it
''10,000 times.'' Economic conditions have become so hopeless that those
living on Haiti's northern coast are forced to migrate elsewhere, said
Leximeau Dumonde, 45, a Port-de-Paix boat captain. ''They sell the house
to find a job,'' Dumonde said. ''Even me, I have nine children.
 I can't help them. I can't put them to school. I can't feed them. I
even can't buy them clothes. They have to leave this island to go to
another island looking for something.'' Dumonde, who three years ago
built a ship similar to the one used for the Dec. 28 voyage to Miami, at
first said he and his crew only go to Miami to buy rice. But the more he
talked, the more he revealed about the human smuggling trade. He said
his vessel could easily accommodate the number of passengers that
 sailed to Miami last month. ''Yeah, you can put it. You can put it.
There is place for that. Some of them ride on top and some of them ride
on the bottom,'' he said. ''It's a big boat, sometimes I might carry 500
people in the boat.'' The upper deck is considered premium seating,
Dumonde said.  ''You might pay $500 extra,'' he said. ''So that you can
breathe.'' Back in Port-au-Prince, people say those nightmarish
conditions on smuggling ships won't keep them from trying the
treacherous voyage again. For those like Rene Fatal, 32, who was on his
second attempted voyage, there is little more to lose. ''If I find a job
in Haiti, I won't go again,'' he said. ''But if I can't find a job to
support my family, I will go again, whether I live or die.'' Babou no
longer has a car to drive. All he has to show for his trip is a red
Chinese passport that belonged to one of the men he hoped to deliver to
Miami. ''We are hurt inside. We have become poorer than we were,'' Babou
said. ''As long as we cannot find a solution, this remains our only