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8981: Desperate Haitians inundating Bahamian shores (fwd)




From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Desperate Haitians inundating Bahamian shores
By Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times

August 27, 2001

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Philogene Brutus prepared to return to his desolate life 
in Haiti earlier this month bearing the wounds of his search for a better 
one.

His arms and legs were deeply scabbed from an eight-day trek through the 
scrub and rocks of a barren Bahamian island. He was weak from a diet of wild 
sea grapes and rainwater. Sullen and empty-eyed in an interview room of the 
Bahamian Immigration Department, he clearly was haunted by the four days he 
spent crammed into the cargo hold of a homemade wooden sloop, and the 
fierce, long days lost on land after the boat capsized off the Bahamas.

Brutus, 29 and unemployed, had paid $500 for the privilege, he recalled 
during a pained, two-hour recounting of a failed odyssey from poverty that 
left at least two Haitians dead.

Bahamian authorities have deported more than 100 Haitian survivors of last 
month's shipwreck _ the latest tragedy in an exodus that is spreading 
Haiti's trauma to the idyllic Bahamas and beyond.

Driven by their country's enduring economic stagnation, political paralysis 
and crime, Haitians headed for the United States are landing on Bahamian 
shores by the thousands this year.

Some are dying. Others are being sent home, at no small cost to the Bahamian 
government. Thousands more are landing undetected, living and working 
illegally in menial jobs on these tourist-dependent islands to raise the 
fare to go on to Florida. No one even knows how many Haitians are here. The 
Bahamian government estimates 30,000; the United Nations puts the number 
closer to 60,000.

The reason is principally geographic: The vast Bahamian chain, which 
includes about 700 islands and covers a sea mass roughly the length of 
California, lies between Haiti and Miami.

``It's not a Bahamian problem. It's a Caribbean problem, but the Bahamas 
bears the brunt of it,'' said William Nottage, the Bahamas' chief of 
immigration enforcement. ``It's very serious, and it's growing.''

So is popular resentment. On radio call-in shows and on the streets, 
Bahamians worry about the migrant influx and the loss of culture in this 
relatively prosperous former British colony where the titles ``Dame'' and 
``Sir'' remain in common parlance.

As a result, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham has been at the 
forefront of efforts by Caribbean nations and the Organization of American 
States to help Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide break a domestic 
political stalemate that has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in 
international development aid to Haiti.

Aristide's government blames the impasse on intransigence by the nation's 
small yet vocal political opposition. Opposition leaders say the former 
Roman Catholic priest, who was elected to a second term in November, has 
become a self-styled dictator. And caught in the middle are 8 million 
Haitians, whose average annual incomes of $250 are the poorest of the 
Western Hemisphere's poor.

``The masses still believe in President Aristide. Unfortunately, the 
president has inherited a crisis which is getting worse,'' said Joseph 
Etienne, who has served as Haiti's top diplomat in Nassau for the past 10 
years.

``There was a time when they thought things would change. But people have 
lost hope. Now, it's a matter of despair.''

But Etienne also blames the phenomenon on sophisticated and ruthless 
migrant-smuggling rings.

The smugglers, he said, charge as much as $5,000 a head, stow their human 
cargo in unsafe vessels and pocket the money regardless whether the 
customers reach their destination.

Brutus, the shipwreck survivor, told of saving up for the fare for months 
with money sent to him by relatives abroad.

In attempting to reconstruct his voyage, Brutus gave an account that 
differed from similarly conflicting accounts of other survivors _ and from 
the facts, as recorded by the Bahamian and U.S. authorities who rescued 
them. That's common, Bahamian investigators say.

``They're all going back to Haiti,'' said one Bahamian immigration 
investigator. ``They have to protect themselves (from retribution). And they 
always want us to think they were going somewhere other than here.''

Brutus insisted that their destination was Providenciales, a town in the 
British-ruled Turks and Caicos Islands chain that neighbors the Bahamian 
island of Great Inagua. There, he asserted, he and many of the other 
passengers had relatives who could help legalize their migrant status, 
although Bahamian investigators said they were convinced that the group 
meant to land illegally in the job-rich northern Bahamas.

They boarded the boat in the northern port city of Cap Haitien about 8 p.m., 
Brutus said, adding that he had no clue what the date was. The 30-foot boat 
had no engine, just a sail, and the captain had neither map nor compass. 
Brutus estimated the cargo at about 125 people _ all jammed below deck with 
just enough food and water for an expected three-day voyage.

A day into the sail, though, Brutus said, they hit rough seas that 
disoriented the captain. They sailed aimlessly for three more days, he said, 
until the captain spotted the shores of what turned out to be Great Inagua.

As the sloop headed for land, it struck a reef and sank.

``Water was rushing into the hold, and everyone was desperate. We climbed 
all over each other trying to get on deck and jump into the sea,'' Brutus 
said. ``No one died. Not then.''

On land, the group wasn't as lucky.

Great Inagua is a flat, 20-by-40-mile mass of salt beds, razor-edged rock, 
scrub, mosquitoes and wild boar. About 1,000 Bahamians live there, clustered 
in and around Matthew Town on the island's southwestern tip. The sloop sank 
off the island's North East Point. Once they swam the 100 yards to shore, 
the Haitians split up into groups and set off in search of civilization. 
Nottage, the Bahamian immigration enforcement chief, served on Great Inagua 
several years ago, and he reckons that most of the group just walked in 
circles for days.

Brutus and other passengers said that three died on the island, but Bahamian 
authorities found just one body after they discovered the group July 24; 
another died of his injuries in a Matthew Town clinic.

Bahamian authorities quickly mobilized a search, rescue and arrest 
operation, calling in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter based on the island. The 
helicopter came back with 62 people the following day. Eight more were found 
the next day on the uninhabited island of Little Inagua. And, in the ensuing 
days, the rest turned up, with Brutus among the last to enter Matthew Town.

Bahamian authorities chartered a plane to fly 100 of them home late last 
month. Brutus and another survivor were sent home this month. Only one has 
remained: a passenger who was arrested after he allegedly turned up holding 
2.2 pounds of cocaine.

``Usually they bring only a few changes of clothes and enough to get started 
wherever they land,'' Nottage said. ``A kilo of cocaine can get you a pretty 
good start. But in this case, he'll be tried and then deported.''

On balance, Brutus said as he rubbed his scabs, he regrets having boarded 
the sloop, saying he did so only to support his wife and 5-year-old son. He 
attributed his survival to his belief in God and insisted that he will start 
saving family remittances again when he gets home _ but for a passport, a 
visa and a plane ticket this time.
Copyright  2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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