by Laura Flanders

One week after Aristide’s return to Haiti, ON THE ISSUES sent journalist Laura Flanders to Port-au-Prince to hear Haitian women testify against military rapists. Her special report is moving, inspiring, and, surprisingly, full of joy.

THE WOMAN IN THE TIGHT, red kerchief opens her eyes wide and spreads her palms across the kneecaps of the women sitting by her side. “Since the Thursday before the arrival, I didn’t sleep,” she says. In the days after the restoration of ousted president Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haitians talk of “the arrival” like the Second Coming: no need to clarify who has arrived. “I didn’t expect to eat better or be healthier suddenly, but he’d be back,” the kerchiefed woman explains. “It’s like my dead brother, or my dead father or a whole dead generation returning.” Another woman describes the arrival of president Aristide as a birthing: “As I watched TV and waited, I put a belt around my stomach to stop my insides coming out. It felt like labor.”

The women are speaking with U.S. visitors in a bright yellow-tiled room in northern Port-au-Prince. Brought together by one of Haiti’s largest women’s groups, Solidarite Fanm Ayisyèn (SOFA), they are talking about the future for women in wake of the arrival. Their visitors, myself included, are here with MADRE, a 20,000-strong U.S. women’s group that has been sending aid to SOFA for the past 12 months. MADRE’s mission is to gather information for their continued collaboration. Together for the first time since the end of military rule, they talk about human rights, the U.S. intervention, poverty, politics, and rape.

The Haitians are old and young, from fifteen years of age to over sixty; political activists and friends of activists, market traders, domestic workers, peasants, professionals, daughters, wives; they are fifty of the hundreds of women who were raped by anti-Aristide terrorists in the last months of their country’s most recent military regime. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to measure the success of the U.S. intervention by the extent to which these women’s abusers are brought to justice. But right now, the woman in the kerchief and her friends are celebrating.

A young market trader in a blue-check dress describes taunting an anti-Aristide thug who lives in her neighborhood on the day of the president’s return. She dug out of hiding all the photographs of Aristide never found by the Macoutes [a generic term for the agents of the dictators]. “I was surprised I was still alive,” she said. “But now I told him: You can kill me but you can’t scare me because my husband is coming.”

The impossible has happened in Haiti: President Aristide has come home. And like the tiny, wrinkled photos of the ousted president that people here have somehow perilously preserved, the dream of justice that successive military regimes have tried to eradicate is back and, miraculously, alive.

“Our first goal is to bring the men who attacked us to trial,” said one of the raped women. “The next is to make sure it never happens again.”

SOFA was founded eight years ago. At their last public meeting, they estimate that 3,000 women from all over Haiti were represented. Since the coup, they’ve had to work more discreetly, but they’ve worked. SOFA members in Port-au-Prince help market vendors establish credit collectives. In the countryside, the group tries to offer health care and literacy and political education sessions in the privacy of people’s houses, out of sight. For MADRE, the stories of women working in repressive circumstances are familiar. For eleven years, MADRE has been sharing skills and expertise, as well as aid, with women in Nicaragua and El Salvador and throughout Central America, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, and the Caribbean.

MADRE’s Vivian Stromberg never believed the U.S. media’s message that popular organizations, especially the women’s organizations, in Haiti had been destroyed. “We’ve found sister organizations in every country that we’ve been in, and Haiti is no exception,” she says. “Part of our work is to correct the message that there’s nothing that U.S. people can do.”

Among the gifts the MADRE women brought were 2,000 long-embargoed latex condoms. To everyone’s relaxed amusement, several of the SOFA women and Vicki Alexander, M.D. (the health director of New York’s Community Family Planning Council and a MADRE board member), demonstrated how to roll a condom onto a phallic plantain. Then Alexander noted soberly, “The death squads are deadly; AIDS is just as deadly.” The women from MADRE offered medical examinations, taught group massage and shared messages of encouragement from women’s groups in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Palestine.

“Obviously the perfect thing would be for there to be peace in Haiti without a foreign army on its soil,” says Stromberg, who was last in Haiti in April 1994. “Equally obvious, there’s more peace in Haiti now than there was before. The question is, what happens next?”

Yes, there is more peace. The last time I was in Haiti was in early 1993. Then, the streets were hushed and atypically empty. From my bed, I could hear shooting. Twice in a week the morning revealed dead bodies in the hotel drive.

On this trip, things are different. Just one week to the day after Aristide flew into Port-au-Prince, the streets of the capital are teeming with recent returnees. Beneath almost every tree, skinny street vendors hawk fruit, fish, shoe leather, or sugar cane. Exiles from the city are gradually reappearing, and after dark, where recently there were only gunshots and their results, now there are young people laughing and bent-over women walking slowly hand in hand.

There’s a sense of the extraordinary having happened, a sort of suspension of disbelief. But as the days pass, reality re-emerges. In a reference to a coup official’s comment that the ousted president could no more return to Haiti than a laid egg could be put back inside a chicken, the city walls have paintings of large eggs being inserted into chickens; sometimes the hand doing the inserting is covered with stars and stripes. It’s not an image many women would have come up with, but it’s a statement about the restoration. Everyone knows the egg can’t go back into the chicken, but people are clear there’s been a miracle.

In his first public address, delivered from behind a three-inch-thick bullet-proof shield on the steps of the presidential palace, Aristide called the women of Haiti “real women,” and “queens.” “Given all the tribulations of life,” said Aristide, “the women of Haiti are always there.” The crowd-those crushed against the palace gates to hear, and those watching on TVs dragged into dusty neighborhood streets-sent up a cheer. One of those cheering was a powerful, dark-skinned woman in a brilliant blue shiny dress who attended our meeting. In her enthusiasm, she says, she picked up a neighbor and twirled her in the air. “When I heard Aristide talk about the Haitian women, I felt huge inside. I said to myself, yes, we are the Haitian women. We are beautiful and we are strong.”

The woman in blue, we’ll call her Geraldine, also knows about tribulation. Early in the morning of February 4, 1994, when she was sleeping with her husband, seven men knocked on the door. Two of the raiders appeared to be civilians, but three were dressed in army uniform, and two more wore the blue outfits of the Haitian police. In front of her husband and four of her kids, the soldiers raped her and then raped her daughters. “They put guns to their ears and forced them to lie down…” Among the weapons the men were carrying, she remembers an Israeli Uzi, several U.S. AK47 rifles and some 45’s. “My tongue was filling up my mouth. I was spitting blood, mute.” Geraldine is not mute now. She talks about her 31-year-old niece, a guest, who scrambled out a window when the gang arrived. The young woman’s body turned up three weeks later in a common dumping ground. Geraldine’s husband has been disabled ever since that night. The beating he received caused permanent damage to his kidneys. But Geraldine is talking about the need for justice. So is the woman in the red kerchief, and the woman in the blue-check dress. Along with the other women of SOFA, the women in the rape group are clear that individual empowerment needs to be followed by social change.

“We feel better, but we’re not actually better off,” one woman said. “Aristide is a leader and an inspiration,” says another. “But he cannot be everywhere. We need to be our own Aristides.”

Achieving Justice

One of the priorities for the women in the room is bringing their abusers to trial. Another is changing Haitian law. At present, explained Evelyn, a third-year law school student and one of SOFA’s coordinators, “We have no structure for justice for rape.” By current law, the punishment for rape is compensation: Offenders are usually required to pay a fine. An alternative is an offer of marriage to their victims. “Rape is still treated as an honor crime,” said Evelyn.

In the wake of recent history, it was hoped that Haitian offenders could be tried under an international code. A few years ago the world’s attention was drawn to Bosnia, where horrific tales of systematic rape inspired some women (including MADRE) to call for war crimes tribunals. At that time, the commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadjic, was charged with international offenses including mass rape because, it was argued, the crimes were committed under his authority and with his implicit consent. More recently, Korean so-called comfort women won compensation from the Japanese government, whom they charged with responsibility for the mass rape and forced prostitution of Korean women during World War II.

Nancy Kelly, part of the MADRE delegation, is a lawyer with the Immigration and Refugee program at Harvard Law School. “If we can get an international body to recognize rape as an act of torture, that could change things for women all over the world.” So far, there has been no action in the Bosnian case. In the case of Haiti, a new initiative has been launched.

In May 1994 MADRE held a high-level press conference in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the campaign of violence being waged against Haitian women. Susan Taylor of Essence magazine, Bianca Jagger, Marie St. Cyr, the director of New York’s Iris House, Ninaj Raoul of the Brooklyn-based Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, and others spoke out forcefully about the needs of Haitian women.

On September 26, a formal “Country Conditions Complaint” about Haiti was presented to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) by MADRE, the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic at the City University of New York Law School, the Haitian Women’s Advocacy Network, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Immigration and Refugee Program at Harvard Law School, among others.

“What we found, compiling the research of very many groups,” said Nancy Kelly, “is a consistent pattern of abuse by members of the Haitian military, the police and armed auxiliaries.” Women of all sorts were targeted “because they were politically involved themselves, or because members of their family were, or because they were working with women, sustaining civilian life. Others were attacked simply because they were women.”

Between February and July of 1994, UN-OAS human rights monitors reported 77 cases of rape, 55 of which involved female activists or close relatives of male activists. Some women’s organizations in Haiti reported counting as many as 18 rapes in a single day. The OAS complaint contains the testimony of over 100 women, some of whom were forced to witness the rape or murder of their children before being raped themselves. In one case, a fifteen-year-old boy was forced to rape his mother.

A favorable decision at the OAS regarding rape in the case of Haiti could have tremendous repercussions in the legal world. Unfortunately for the women of Haiti, it seems unlikely the OAS will consider the case anytime soon.

But there are, as we go to press, approximately 20,000 U.S. troops in Haiti. It wasn’t totally unrealistic for some women to expect that the armed forces would be used to apprehend abusers. After all, President Clinton did emphasize rape when he addressed the public in a televised speech intended to convince Americans of the need for U.S. military action, after months in which his administration downplayed human rights reports.

“Haiti’s dictators, led by General Raoul Cedras, control the most violent regime in our hemisphere,” declared the president. “International observers discovered a terrifying pattern of soldiers and policemen raping the wives and daughters of suspected political dissidents.”

The “New” Old Police

But a month after U.S. troops descended on Haiti, the women of SOFA see no evidence that the young GIs are intent on bringing murderers and rapists to trial. When the troops first arrived, “the people were very brave and the Macoutes were running scared,” explained Anne Marie Coriolon, one of SOFA’s directors. “Gradually though, there’s been a change. People are beginning to realize that the Macoutes still have arms and they’re not about to be disbanded.”

“The people turn criminals over to the U.S. troops, and then we see them back on the streets in three days or less,” said another woman. “We were told the U.S. troops were here to disarm the criminals, but that’s not what’s going on.”

Spokespeople for the U.S. armed forces acknowledge holding only between 30 and 40 men in detention during the period immediately following the Aristide restoration. “It’s not our responsibility to judge who’s guilty,” one young GI from California explained. “We’re just here to keep the peace, not to get involved. Unless we see someone committing a crime in front of us, or doing something to threaten U.S. security, we’ve been told to leave them alone.”

When women from MADRE and SOFA were lunching in a restaurant in Petionville, the wealthy district of Port-Au-Prince, we witnessed a crowd growing in front of a nearby police station. An American military police lieutenant, sitting patiently in the cab of a dusty armored transport vehicle, explained that his unit was choosing policemen who were considered eligible for retraining. Under the U.S. plan, the current Haitian army, which includes the police, is to be replaced by an armed force of about 1,500 and a police corps of 7,000 to 10,000. But many men will be the same. A new academy has been established for retraining the “old” police, “professionalizing” them through the U.S. International Criminal Investigations Training Assistance Program (a project funded by the FBI). The “new” police will then be returned to their old neighborhoods.

How many of the Petionville police had been selected for retraining? “Them all,” according to the lieutenant. “It will be easy enough to re-integrate the rest,” he said. “I’ve seen them walking in their neighborhoods, smiling and shaking hands with people. I don’t think there’ll be any trouble.”

The SOFA women were not as surprised by this as their friends from MADRE. On the day of Aristide’s return, a young boy spotted the thug who had forced him to rape his mother and, with the help of a crowd, turned the accused man over to U.S. troops, SOFA’s Anne Marie Coriolon remembered. There is no guarantee that man will be held. “If he’s released, then what?” asks Coriolon. “That little boy’s life is in danger.” So far, none of the women in the rape support group coordinated by SOFA has dared come forward to identify their assailants to the U.S. troops.

Another option is to hold the leaders of the anti-Aristide regime accountable for the actions of their men. According to the women who met with MADRE, most of the assailants came masked, but the thugs usually wore recognizable uniforms, or they announced they were with the Front for Haitian Progress and Advancement (FRAPH), a right-wing paramilitary group. “They wanted us to know who they were,” one woman explained. “That was part of the point.”

But the likelihood of any of the paramilitary leaders being brought to trial in connection with the rapes is slim. On October 5, the U.S. forces organized a press conference for FRAPH’s leader, Emmanual Constant. “They gave him the sound system, brought him in a U.S. vehicle, protected him while he spoke and drove him away at the end,” said Coriolon. A reporter from Haiti Info, a Port-au-Prince-based newsletter, asked U.S. embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager how he (and Clinton) could call FRAPH “terrorist” and “anti-democratic” one day and protect their leader the next? “Life’s bizarre…things change all the time,” said Schrager, explaining that the U.S. now considers FRAPH a legitimate political party. The October 24 issue of The Nation was more enlightening: It revealed that the CIA had been instrumental in setting up the paramilitary group and that Constant was on their payroll at the time of the coup.

Business As Usual?

As the news crews started leaving Haiti, businessmen began arriving. At the airport on October 21, an English engineer was heard explaining to a customs official that his company had plans for him to stay six months. “Haiti’s open for business,” announced the Miami Herald less than a month after October 15. Haitian commerce minister Louis Dejoie assured U.S. executives that “Haiti is going to roll out the red carpet,” at a conference in Miami.

To the women of SOFA, the revival of business as usual in Haiti means a return for women (the majority of industrial workers) to the sub-poverty Haitian wage ($.14/hr.). Plans from Aristide’s first term in office to double the minimum wage have been abandoned. According to the Multinational Monitor, Aristide’s administration gave in to pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on that issue before August of 1994. Now an estimated $800 million in multilateral (mostly U.S.) aid has been promised to Haiti, and local people suspect there are some strings attached. To Jane Regan of Haiti Info, the massive influx of money slated for “elections assistance” and “stability” is tantamount to an “invisible invasion.” “The intent of many of these programs,” writes Regan, “is to counter the democratic and popular movement’s demands for radical economic change and social justice.”

“It’s our responsibility,” says Vivian Stromberg, “to not let the U.S. presence redirect Haitian democracy. If we’re serious about meeting the needs of people, we have to be serious about supporting the organizations they themselves have set up to respond to those needs. We have to listen to the Haitians.”

Listening Up

The day before the MADRE group returned to New York, they listened. At the appointed site for testimony collection, a kindergarten in a popular neighborhood called Martissant, MADRE workers were greeted by dozens of small children in blue-bib uniforms. As they walked into the whitewashed building, Nancy Kelly said she was expecting to see a handful of women, perhaps five or six, inside. But behind the classroom door, on tiny kiddie-chairs, their knees bent almost to their ears, 23 women sat waiting.

Kelly reminded the Haitians, again, there was no insurance that adding their testimonies to the OAS complaint would have any direct result. “It’s especially unlikely that any damages or compensation would ever come your way…. But the Haitian women have a lot to teach. Women have played a key role here and could play a key role internationally if your cases convince the OAS to recognize the severity of rape.”

Despite the risks, the women testified in detail, describing their attackers, streets, dates, times of day. Some had been raped in front of their children, some alone; some in their own homes, some in abandoned shacks. Some had been forced to submit in order to protect their kids. Geraldine told her story, angry but confident that change was on its way. The woman in the kerchief told hers: she hadn’t been political, she said, but everyone knew she supported Aristide, “because I talked about him all the time.” The last testimony came from a fifteen-year-old with the family name of “Darling”-a tiny, stick-boned child clutching a piece of chalk in her right hand. Her mother, big eyes welling in a smooth, walnut-colored face, leaned towards her, hands reaching out for her daughter’s. By the end, both mother and daughter, and also translator, reporter, and all the women from MADRE were in tears. The tragedy of the tale was one thing; more moving even than the stories was the women’s courage to talk.

Laura Flanders is the coordinator of the Women’s Desk at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) and executive producer and host of CounterSpin, FAIR’s nationally syndicated radio program of media analysis.