Vol. 1, No.3 January 18, 1999


by John McLaughlin

They squared off, ready to go one-on-one. Johnny flashed his bright smile, then lowered himself into a crouch as he put the ball to the pavement, his left knee out in front to protect his dribble. Cholo got into position, too, low but up on his toes, his long thin arms outstretched like a bird of prey, ready to eat Johnny up when he tried to get past him.

The boys seemed to have forgotten everything for the moment. Hours earlier, when the rain had come down in sheets over Batey Libertad on this Saturday, the last day of October, Johnny and Cholo and the other adolescents of the soccer team wore long faces, knowing the rock-studded plot of dirt where they practice most every afternoon would be too puddle-ridden to play. The boys, 16 and 18 respectively, both Haitian, are soccer fanatics-- almost nothing else will do. But when the rain stopped, the thought of basketball lifted their spirits, and they took to the court. Like the soccer pitch, it's nothing special, for anyone used to playing in a gym or a city park: just a platformed slab of cement about 9x12 meters, with a hoop that hangs a good six inches short of regulation. The court size keeps the games to three-on-three-- two-on-two if the players want more room to maneuver, or, better said, if they're old enough to convince the younger kids to buzz off for a while. Cholo and Tony, 16, a muscular boy with a voice as deep as Cholo's, did just that, then challenged Johnny and I to play them to 21.It was a close game. The sweat flowed as we battled for rebounds, hacked on defense, and caught the occasional misplaced elbow in the chest. Tony played me tightly, and Cholo would double-team if I tried to drive to the basket. When he did, I'd pass back to Johnny for the jump shot. He hit his first two or three, but then began to miss. He lost his rhythm, and his confidence. With the score tied somewhere in the mid-teens, Johnny waited for Cholo after he got my pass. He crouched like a cat, and started to dribble.

I moved away from the basket, to give him some room. He faked left, but Cholo didn't buy it. He faked right, but still nothing-- in fact, Cholo himself seemed ready to attack, to swipe the ball away in one slashing motion. But just as suddenly, before Johnny could attempt another move to the hoop, they were both gone, sprinting away toward the back of the batey. I heard a couple quick shouts as all those standing around the court did the same, fleeing in two or three different directions. The lonely ball bounced quietly on the court until it eventually came to a stop.

* * *

As it happened, it was a false alarm. The shouts that afternoon were not followed, as they usually are, by the terrifying roar of the Guardia patrol truck, bursting into the batey at breakneck speed and slamming to a halt at the end of the main strip. Apparently, someone saw-- or thought they saw-- the truck on the main highway, nearing the batey's entrance, and the word went through the community like a shot. Half an hour or so afterwards, as residents gradually reappeared, returning from the river area or from behind bolted doors, the general mood was subdued. The ball laid still on the court. None of the boys had the energy to finish the game. Neither did I.

The Guardia didn't come that afternoon-- nor that evening, as was expected-- but their presence was tangible nonetheless. It always is, here in Batey Libertad, and in Dominican-Haitian communities throughout the country. Since the beginning of September, a patrol of seven soldiers has come to this batey with alarming regularity, almost exclusively after 10pm, to round-up undocumented Haitians, Haitians with valid visas, and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry and thus of "Haitian" appearance. In September, it was six nights a week, and one Sunday just before noon; in October, two or three nights a week; the first week of November, a different patrol arrived twice, in the late afternoon, accompanied by immigration officials; following that, the night patrol returned, as usual without immigration officials, twice a week on average. Doors have been broken, physical abuse has been issued, and dozens of residents have been deported. Anyone can be taken: husbands have been separated from wives, parents from children and vice versa, and even, on the second Saturday in November, an 8 1/2 month pregnant woman was taken from her dwelling, despite her pleas and those of her neighbors.

The Guardia presence hangs heavy, a dark cloud that can let loose at any moment. No one here wants to be caught out in the open. Fear grows, and with it, resentment. Which is why I didn't take Cholo's remark that afternoon as anything unusual. When he returned from his home, a tall-ceilinged room about 12x12 feet that he shares with his mother and two older brothers, I asked him if everything was all right, if his family was OK. He nodded, frowning, then smacked a fist into an open palm. "I'm going to kill a Guardia one of these days. Come behind him when it's dark and just put a machete right through him," he said, thrusting sharply forward with his fist.

A boy's remark, I told myself. A knee-jerk response from an 18 year-old kid who'd like to see the latest Van Damne movie, if he could afford it. A streak of anger that would fade when Cholo became his normally placid, jocular self again.

That night, standing outside of Tony's father's colmado with four other teenage boys, it seemed he was back. He had them all laughing as, with utter panache, he instructed me in the finer points of picking up a Dominican girlfriend. "You have to make Chinese eyes," he said, dropping his eyelids halfway in his best Don Juan pose. He moved toward me and lowered his voice to a silky-smooth purr. "Then you come up to her and say, "Hola, preciosa. Such a delight to meet you.' Just like that-- asi," he said, snapping his fingers. "She's yours."

Johnny was there in the circle, enjoying himself like the other boys. Looking at the two of them, laughing and slapping each other on the back beneath the waxing half-moon that night, who would have guessed that just nine days before it was they who were snapped up, that it was these boys who were plucked out from amongst their chums and thrown into an excruciating predicament-- just like that?

* * *

Buying bread and candles, that's all. It was about 9pm on Thursday, October 22, and once again, the batey was experiencing a blackout. It happens all the time, all over the Dominican Republic. There just isn't enough electricity to go around, so it comes and goes, a few hours here, a few hours there, following no ostensible schedule or decipherable pattern. Work-- of which there is also not enough to go around nationally-- has been especially scarce in the batey this fall. The fields that yielded quite profitable tobacco in the past two years have been delayed by Hurricane Georges, or have been planted with other, less labor-intensive crops, since the price of tobacco leaves took a precipitous drop. Johnny and Cholo, like many other males here, were without work, and were asking Romero, the colmado owner, to sell them the items on credit, so they could at least make it through the night.It was a familiar scene: Romero's lamp-lit colmado, he and his wife behind the counter, a few customers inside or out front, sharing stories of the day as they finished their soda or waited their turn to make a purchase. Apparently the stories were good that night, because no one heard a thing.

The Guardia snuck in on foot, the truck arriving minutes later. In that time the soldiers detained 5 people, one man and four boys, including Johnny and Cholo. These two boys were leaning up against the counter when they saw the soldiers, and they tried to jump it, to escape through the back of Romero's house. But the soldiers were too quick. The four of them teamed up on Johnny and Cholo, two to a boy, snagged them by the waists of their pants, and carried them both to the truck-- one soldier clamping the ankles, the other the wrists-- where they threw them like sacks of rice onto the flatbed.

Though neither Johnny nor Cholo are newcomers to the DR (Johnny has lived in Batey Libertad for 3 years, Cholo for 16), neither have documents of any sort. They are among the uncounted thousands of Haitians who cross the border and take up residence here, trying to scratch out a better life than the one they left behind. Some of these immigrants play it safe-- or at least, think they are doing so-- and obtain a visa, paying upwards of US$25 dollars or 710 gourdes for a two-month stay, 1,200 gourdes for 6 month while US citizens, pay US$10 dollars for a 3 months tourist visa. Many, however, unable to pay such a relatively high fee, cross illegally. Tonight-- as is the case many nights, for many residents, in Batey Libertad-- Johnny and Cholo were just a couple of black bodies, in the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have had all the papers they needed, it wouldn't have mattered. In fact, they weren't even asked for them until later, when they arrived at the fortaleza in Mao.

Once there, the boys were finally allowed to move. During the ride, all 18 persons (detainees from raids in various parts that night) were instructed, under threat of physical punishment, not to talk or move, even to look at one another. The group remained captive there during the night, unable to use toilets or obtain a drink of water; in the morning they were put to work early, cleaning the jail until they were loaded up at 10am to be sent to the border fortaleza in Dajabon.

Though it was the first time for both Johnny and Cholo, their deportation to Haiti followed an all-too-familiar pattern, one they'd heard about before from other residents of the batey. Once in Dajabon, around noon, they were grouped with other raid detainees (122 that day), all of whom were put to work in and around the fortaleza. Johnny was hit on the backside several times when he complained of hunger; in short order, he overcame his reluctance to work, and spent three hours chopping weeds behind the building. Neither he nor any other detainees were provided food or drink. At 6pm they were loaded into a military truck and taken five minutes across the border, dropped in the town of Ouanaminthe.

It's a small, dusty town, about the same size as Dajabon, just across the Massacre River that separates the two countries for 20 kilometers in the north. Entering it, one leaves behind the paved streets and blaring music of the DR, the frantic commotion of vendors of every sort at the border, and arrives in a place of relative peace, it seems. Almost wholly absent are the roaring motorcycles one finds everywhere on the east side of the border; bicycles, the cheaper and quieter alternative, are the private vehicle of choice. And many people get around on foot, negotiating the bumpy, rocky dirt roads with practiced skill.

For those dumped out of the Guardia trucks in the early evening, as Johnny and Cholo were that day, the quiet is haunting rather than soothing, and the dirt roads seem a twisting and perilous labyrinth in the fading light. "No one really says anything," Cholo explained, his story matching those of others who have found themselves in Ouanaminthe with scant prospects. "Everybody just goes their own way, and tries to survive."

* * *

There's a way back, but you can't make it without help. You'll have to ask-- but better be wise about it. Only talk to folks who look like you, who know what it's like, who might have walked this path once themselves.When Johnny and Cholo happened upon an old friend of theirs in Ouanaminthe-- a young man who lived in Batey Libertad some years ago but now makes his living selling sneakers in Dajabon-- that was what he told them. He welcomed them into his house that night, fed them, and sent them off the next evening.

The boys headed north, picked a spot upriver from the militarized crossing zone, and waded through to the other side. They met up with the route from Dajabon to Montecristi, a two-lane paved road lined on both sides with a thick cover of cactus and brush trees. Approaching Canongo, the first town along the way, the boys ascended into the nearby hills. Night fell soon afterwards, but the boys' eyes adjusted with ease and they kept the road in sight.

They'd been told to stay alert nearing Copey. About 15 km from Dajabon, it holds the first military checkpoint upon re-entering the DR. There are four such checkpoints between Dajabon and Batey Libertad. All eastbound public vehicles are stopped, at all hours, and all private vehicles are stopped at night. The stations, usually consisting of a stop-sign and a small hut, are staffed by uniformed, armed soldiers-- some of whom are not much older than Johnny and Cholo-- who enter or look inside the vehicle, and demand papers of anyone of "Haitian" appearance. In Copey, however, not all the soldiers stay around the hut. Aware of the porousness of the border, some Guardia take to the hills themselves at night, seeking out mojados (the Dominican equivalent of "wet backs") like these two boys.

They came from below, from behind. With flashlights, for certain, and guns, more than likely. Johnny and Cholo didn't pause to check. When the soldiers spotted them and called out their pursuit, they scurried, as quickly and as quietly as they could. The soldiers made chase, but the boys were too nimble, too fast, and soon enough they had slipped away, following the road northeast to Montecristi, 20 km away.

They depended, as they knew they'd have to, not only upon their instincts, but upon strangers. The border zone, even after the line between the two countries was militarized by US troops in 1917, is rich in Dominico-Haitian communities. As such, people journeying eastward can always find a sympathetic soul to point out the way, especially if one is persistent. Or hungry. As luck would have it, the boys happened upon a woman living in the area where the Yaque river crosses under the road to Montecristi. Of modest means, she could offer them only some pieces of bread, but she advised them to cross the river then, to make their way through the hills, well away from the road, to avoid the checkpoint in the city. They did, and walked some 60 km until they approached the town of Jaibon, on the main highway, beyond the last checkpoint before the batey. There they found an old Dominican man willing to give them a ride in his car, and finally, after two full days, they were home.

* * *

Three weeks later, on an overcast Saturday afternoon, Cholo and I were heading out of the batey on bicycles, looking for Johnny. He'd gotten some work a few days before, in one of the few local fields that had begun to plant tobacco. Cholo didn't have the same luck, but when I asked him where Johnny was he enthusiastically rounded up two bicycles, and we were off.

The sun broke through as we turned off the main highway onto the dirt road that runs between the fields. The rich black of the freshly-hoed soil was peppered with the bright green, sprouting tobacco plants, still very young. We saw several Haitian men along the way, most dressed in ragged t-shirts and long pants, with black rubber boots covering their shins, some returning to the batey for lunch, some still working in solitude in the fields. Threatening clouds hovered over the magnificently tall and green mountains up ahead, but in that moment the sun was warm and the breeze was soft, so we rode on.

A few minutes later Cholo told me he wanted to show me something. We parked the bikes under the cover of some trees and walked into a newly-planted field that still didn't show the signs of the seedlings, toward the large drying hut where mature tobacco leaves are hung. In one corner of the hut, the two workers in this field had built their dwelling: a tiny patch of dirt boxed-in with walls of cross-laid wood, a patch just big enough to contain their two beds, each a layer of medium-thick sticks propped up on slightly thicker posts, overlaid with a small sheet of cardboard in the middle.

"I don't know these two men," Cholo said, "but some from the batey are starting to live out here like this, because they know the Guardia won't come." He explained to me that he'd heard that at night, the mosquitoes in these fields can be thick enough to cut a knife through, but the men seem to think they'd rather endure the bugs than the perpetual threat of deportation.

We chatted a few minutes more in the shade before we mounted our bicycles to find Johnny. Cholo told me that the previous year, he worked frequently where Johnny was today. And the money, he claimed, was good. "In that day, 2,000 pesos (about US$130, the amount Cholo had heard it took these days to obtain a fake Dominican ID) was nothing-- you could make that in a month," he said, flashing a proud smile, perhaps remembering the feeling of bringing that home, of giving it to his mother, or of buying things for himself, like new clothes for Christmas. This year, however, there was nothing to take home.

"I'm going to spend Christmas here this year," he said, telling me that normally he, his mother, and his two older brothers visit relatives in Haiti during the holiday. "But you've got to have new clothes to wear. You can't go without them."As we headed further into the fields, the clouds delivered on their promise. Still a good distance from where Johnny was, Cholo suggested we turn around and try to make it back to the batey before we got too wet. The clouds were swift, however; we made it back, but only after taking a good soaking.

I could visit Johnny working some other day, Cholo insisted. But he asked me if I'd at least like to see where he lives. Just to the right of the basketball court are a number of rusted tin edifices divided into rooms. Cholo opened the door to Johnny's, unwrapping the wire that serves as a lock. Despite the passing of the rain, the room was still stifling hot, the low tin roof having absorbed the sun all morning long. The inside walls, made of cardboard, stretched a few feet in each direction; against one of them, on top of the dirt, stood a single bed which Johnny shares with his older brother, neatly made and with a toothbrush resting on the pillow. Their parents have both died, and they live here in Batey Libertad with their two sisters, who share a similar room in another part of the community.

Cholo and I parted ways on the basketball court. His mother was calling him for lunch, and I needed to return to Santiago. I thanked him for the bike ride, and as I watched him walk off I wondered when he'd next be on that bike himself, just for fun, just like a boy.

CROSSING is published by John McLaughlin and the Centro de Reflexion, Encuentro y Solidaridad: ONE RESPE, for further information please contact: a.badillo@codetel.net.do