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9832: For Haitian migrants, hope is thicker than tragedies (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Published Monday, December 3, 2001

For Haitian migrants, hope is thicker than tragedies

LES CAYES, Haiti -- Despite the disappearance of more than 200 Haitian 
migrants who left in sailboats bound for Florida last month, dozens of 
Haitians continue to make departure plans from southern coast towns, where 
the hopeless and jobless wait in vain for change.

``Misery is killing us. Children can't eat; the people can't work, can't 
function,'' said Selon Dieu, 39, who is what the Haitians call a ``boat 
organizer'' -- someone who puts together trips to the United States.

Since 1991, Dieu has tried unsuccessfully to make it to Miami three times. 
Each time, he got only as far as Cuba, which repatriated him.

Dieu said it's only a matter of time before he rounds up another group of 
Haitians willing to make the trek to a better life, a working life -- in 
Miami, where he also wants to settle. He says everyone chips in what they 
can -- sometimes nothing, sometimes a few hundred dollars -- to pay for a 
boat, which he'll either buy or have built. Officially, authorities believe 
the 200-plus migrants who left from nearby Ile-a-Vache are dead -- that 
their boats capsized during last month's Hurricane Michelle. There have been 
no telephone calls to relatives either here or in the United States 
announcing safe arrivals.


But no bodies or ship wreckage have been found. There remain more questions 
than answers surrounding the vessels: Exactly what day did they leave 
Ile-a-Vache? How many people were on board and who were they? What really 

Esperand Dominique, a regional director of social affairs for the Haitian 
government, said he was initially told there was one boat, which left on 
Nov. 1 with more than 150 people aboard. Then, he said, he learned of a 
second boat with 63 aboard, which supposedly left Nov. 2. Hurricane Michelle 
hit Cuba and the Bahamas a few days later.

Now, he said, interviews with the migrants' families, friends and others 
have revealed that it was actually the boat with 63 people that left on Nov. 
1. Then, some time after that -- he doesn't know when -- a second boat with 
as many as 210 people followed.

The 63-person boat is described as about 30 feet long, painted red and 
white; the second is about 40 feet long, and gray and black. The boats' 
names aren't known.

Because passengers haven't been heard from, speculation and rumor have 
fueled hope among some that the missing arrived safely in the Bahamas, 
Jamaica, even Cuba. But checks with Bahamian and Jamaican government 
officials have turned up negative so far.

``I can't tell you if they are dead or if they are alive. Only God knows,'' 
said Ghislaine Gary, 72, whose son, Clauzel Mesidor, 33, and daughter, 
Francesse Mesidor, 21, are among the missing. They were on the 63-person 
boat, captained by a man named ``Onel.''

Gary said she told Francesse not to go. ``But she saw her brother leave and 
she left with him.'' Gary, a thin woman whose face reveals grief and worry, 
knows too much time -- four weeks -- has gone by. But like dozens of people 
here, she still hopes the passengers are alive somewhere -- anywhere.

Leonice Mesidor, 24, does not know what to think about the fate of her 
missing siblings, who also include Francesse's half-brothers, Junior and 
Reynold. Both are in their early 20s. They leave behind grieving parents, 
children, diplomas of their accomplishments in French.

``The situation here is not good,'' Leonice Mesidor said in a timid voice, a 
veil of sadness on her face. ``They can't eat. Their children can't go to 
school. They left in search of a better life.''


This year alone, that search has led to the repatriation of thousands of 
Haitians who have either been intercepted at sea by U.S. Coast Guard cutters 
or washed up on shore in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Turks & Caicos. The Bahamas, 
which has heightened surveillance around its waters with the help of 
helicopters, has repatriated more than 6,000 Haitians, compared to 4,879 
last year.

Dominique, the government official, said the people, especially the young, 
are leaving for many reasons. A supporter of President Jean-Bertrand 
Aristide, he points to the hundreds of millions of dollars in international 
aid that have been frozen since the opposition alleged fraud in last year's 
parliamentary election.

``The country has become so difficult,'' Dominique said, noting that even 
hot school lunches have been cut off. ``They used to depend on the land they 
toiled and wood they cut. Now, it gives them nothing.''

Dominique and others have warned people on the radio against the sea 
voyages. Lies by boat organizers that the United States needs workers 
because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are just that -- lies, he has 

``It goes in one ear, and comes out the other,'' Dominique said. ``They feel 
it's better for them to risk traveling on the sea.''

Word from those who have successfully arrived also fuels the exodus. Esnoka 
Jean-Louis said it persuaded his sister Rose Carmel Jean-Louis, 23, to leave 
on the 63-person boat.

``I couldn't discourage her,'' he said of his sister, who was studying to be 
a cosmetologist. ``If she reached, I didn't want her to hate me.''

Rose Carmel's father lives in Belle Glade. She was trying to enter the 
United States legally, but grew impatient. Several years ago, her father 
applied for U.S. residency status for his children. But on the day Rose 
Carmel was supposed to receive her U.S. visa, she was disappointed. ``They 
told her, `You turned 21 today, you are too old to go,' '' her brother 


Many come from as far away as Cap Haitien on the north coast to leave from 
the vicinity of Les Cayes, located about 94 miles southwest of 
Port-au-Prince. Les Cayes is one of the greener and more serene parts of the 

Corn, plantains, oranges and other fruits and vegetables are bountiful. The 
coastal community and its nearby fishing villages export lobster, conch, 
shrimp and crab. Vetiver, the base for most of the perfume industry, 
especially men's colognes, is also manufactured here.

Still, the people are poor. Many live on what little they make selling 
secondhand clothing, handmade furnishings and toiletries imported from the 
neighboring Dominican Republic. They sell them in makeshift flea markets or 
out of their front doors.


``The people leave only for one reason -- economics,'' said Pierre Léger, a 
successful businessman who is building a nearby port and airport and employs 
several hundred people in his perfume and propane manufacturing businesses.

``It's difficult to make the Haitian government -- from the 1900s to now -- 
see you need infrastructure. Without electricity, without water, without 
wood, without a port and airport, you cannot develop a country like this 
without that. . . . That's why people float and take the boat to another 

Léger said the frozen aid is not what's killing the country, but a lack of 
technical assistance and knowledge on how to ``fish for yourself.''

Families whose relatives have used boat organizers say those fleeing the 
country have paid anywhere from $120 to $600 to make the journey. Once the 
would-be migrants arrive here, they take a boat to Ile-a Vache, a rugged 
island with a small tourist village where boat-building is common.

Pierre Maccen Dorval, the town's mayor, said the fact his island has become 
popular with smugglers is not ``the fault of the people of Ile-a-Vache.'' 
More than 700 people left in sailboats for Florida from the town's coast 
last month.

``Each boat that leaves Ile-a-Vache, if it has 100 people aboard, only 20 
are from Ile-a-Vache,'' said Dorval, who knows some of the missing.

Dorval said he has no police on the island to halt the trips. Like many 
government officials here, he's sympathetic to the people's plight.

``It's an uncontrollable situation,'' he said. ``I'm going to stand in front 
of 700 people?''

Dorval said he cannot discourage fellow Haitians from leaving because when 
he does an analysis of the country, he sees that it has reached critical 

He compares the situation of people risking their lives with a child who has 
to learn the hard way: ``When you have a child that plays with fire, you 
have to allow it to play with fire until it learns not to.''

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