Vol. 1, No.6 March 22, 1999

 

DEAD MAN WALKING

By John McLaughlin

The soldier told them he would count to five. "We're going to work, boys", he said, pacing before the men sitting at his feet on the prison floor, huddled together despite the midday heat. Behind him stood a handful of other soldiers

Peralta stood up, and quickly. That was first-- he knew that much. Negotiations would come later.

Those among the 20 or so in this particular cell of the fortaleza in Dajabon-- all Haitians, detainees from raids of the previous night-- who didn't make it to their feet by "five' were kicked or hit with a billyclub on the backside until they did stand up. The whole group was then moved toward the back of the building, toward the peanut field behind the fortaleza. Along the way the soldiers began to prod them again, ordering them to move faster, to stay in line. It was at this point that Peralta reached into his pocket and retrieved some small bills. Ten pesos to the first soldier ready to whack him across the soldiers. Ten pesos to the next, set to kick him in the pants. Ten pesos, ten pesos, ten pesos... until each of the six Guardia were just a couple pesos short of buying one small beer. One of them removed him from the line and returned him to the cell, as the rest of the group followed course to the field out back. For Peralta, a tall, slim, mustached Haitian man of 41 and a 23-year resident of Batey Libertad, there was now time to rest. Occasionally he peered out the cell window to see the other men-- five of whom had been detained with him when the Guardia raided his batey at about 11pm on September 15-- chopping and uprooting weeds in the peanut field. Peralta himself had been taken out of his own colmado (bodega), despite the fact that he presented his Haitian passport and his visa, which was still valid for 10 more days. The lieutenant of the patrol, however, claimed that the visa was invalid and arrested him on the spot. As if it didn't exist.

The batey residents were put under armed guard in the back of the truck, the same truck that came 6 nights a week to Batey Libertad during September, always after 10 pm, with a patrol of seven soldiers that consistently terrorized the community by breaking down doors, shouting at and even striking residents, and detaining people of "Haitian appearance" seemingly at random. Peralta and the other men were amongst 22 people from various parts brought to the fortaleza in Mao that day, where they spent the night without access to food, water, or toilets. At 5am they were put to work cleaning the building, mopping the floors and sweeping out leaves. Those who were sluggish or stubborn in responding to the call to work were kicked or struck until they fell in line.

Later that morning, they were taken to Dajabon, where they remained-- working, again without access to basic necessities-- until 6pm. In that time (before the soldiers loaded them up again, to drop them in Ouanaminthe, five minutes across the border in Haiti), Peralta's 60 pesos kept him relatively unharrassed in his cell. They bought him time to think, and to worry.

It was Christmas of 1997, and he was in Haiti again. Just as in other years, he had returned with his wife and three children to visit family, to bring back some of what he had earned from his colmado, to spend the holiday giving thanks for his good fortune. He passed the days with his chin up, carrying himself with a smile.

Which is why his friend was so surprised. Willy, another Batey Libertad resident, had come to spend some of the holiday in Haiti as well. He, however, had left several days after Peralta, and upon seeing him still in the village, couldn't believe that Peralta hadn't yet found out.

"You're walking around like a dead man," Willy told him. "Don't you know what happened back there?" When Peralta returned two days later, he saw that it was just like Willy had said: there had been a raid. Apparently, it was the sign of things to come, a precursor to the dramatic intensification of round-ups that began in earnest on January 4, 1998, a date that everyone in the batey remembers clearly. From that day until mid-March, terror reigned; the population, previously over 900, dropped to around 200. Residents who were not deported fled back to Haiti or to other parts of the DR. Some of those who stayed were ghost-residents at best: it was not unusual for rice and tobacco workers in those months to rise at 4am, walk to the plantation, sleep another hour or so in the fields until sunrise, work until sunset and then walk home again, always traveling in the dark so as to avoid being spotted in the open by the Guardia. Of course, when they returned to their rooms to sleep, they still laid in wait-- as did the other residents-- for a late-night invasion, the type that came to pass during the fortnight when Peralta remained blissfully ignorant in Haiti.

He'd left the keys with his neighbors Fernando and Chimena, a Haitian couple. He asked them to watch the colmado and keep it open a few hours a day; he invited them to bring the cots from his house (about 50 meters away) and stay the night as often as they liked. They did-- in fact, they were there the night the colmado doors came off their hinges at 4am. They were there, jolted from their sleep, to plead with and finally shout at the soldiers who robbed the shelves of rum, the freezer of beer, and the cash box of 400 pesos ($25 US) and Peralta's watch. They were there, the two of them together, until the soldiers decided to arrest Chimena as well, and left Fernando behind.

When Peralta returned, and saw how things had been left, he indeed felt that something within him had died. "I'd lost everything," he said. "I had to start over.

He and his wife Anita immediately began working in rice and tobacco fields, earning 60 or 70 pesos (sometimes as much as 100) in a ten or twelve hour day, slowly repaying debts to their vendors, gradually putting the colmado back on its feet. Neither of them could spend much time at home with their three school-age children, as they had before, but it was the quickest way to become solvent again, the only way they could see to regain some sense of what they had before.

Now, alone in his cell, Peralta feared he might lose it all again. And why not-- who can predict the capricious machinations of the Guardia? Who was to say that the soldiers, after shipping him to Mao the night before, wouldn't return tonight and wreak havoc on his colmado as they had in December? Who was to say they wouldn't arrest Anita, also Haitian, also possessing a valid passport and visa, and that she wouldn't be pulling up weeds in the peanut field the next afternoon? Who was to say they wouldn't take his children, all Dominican citizens by birthright but still susceptible to arrest due to their "Haitian appearance", and that they wouldn't be dumped in Ouanaminthe, left miles from nowhere to find shelter and food until someone from the batey could come to retrieve them?

The thoughts haunted him, especially the last, but he had to put them aside temporarily, to concentrate on his own plight, when he himself was standing in Ouanaminthe watching the Guardia truck drive away. He had to survive, and to get back.

He did. And fortunately, his colmado was still intact, his family still safe inside their house, awaiting his arrival.

There were-- and still are-- ripple effects, however. Supermarkets in the Dominican Republic are very few and far between. Those that exist offer a wide range of products at good prices, but they are out of reach of the vast majority of Dominicans, who shop instead at their corner colmado, for two basic reasons. First, most people lack adequate transportation to get to and from supermarkets with their purchases. And perhaps more importantly, at the colmado one can buy on credit. In Batey Libertad, where the round trip fare to the nearest grocery store (in Santiago, 45 minutes each way) costs two-thirds of the daily wage in the rice field, the choice is easy. In this community whose population--when the rice and tobacco harvests are in full gear, and the Guardia pressure is subdued--can reach 1500, there are a dozen colmados.

Occupying a plot just 10x15 feet, with a triangular tin awning in front propped up by six-foot tree branches, Peralta's is modest, even by batey standards. The two doorways of the bright green front aren't kind to tall folks-- Peralta himself has to duck when he goes in and out. Inside, the three shelves that wrap around the walls are lined with everything from canned peas to tomato paste, bar soap to tampons, and like every other colmado in the DR, with rum, rum, and more rum. Bottled soft drinks and beer, packets of water and orange punch stay cold in the gas-powered freezer. And of course, there are the staples: heavy sacks of rice, red beans, sugar, and salt sit on the floor behind the counter, tied up at the top until Peralta opens one and scoops out what the customer desires, weighing it by the pound or half-pound on the scale in the corner, bagging it and collecting the pesos or--more likely-- marking it down in the book. The book, usually a well-worn, standard- issue schoolkid's notebook, can be found in just about any colmado you like. Folded-over with a rubber band, so as to keep hold of the uncapped pen tucked inside, Peralta's is, like others, full of names and dates, numbers written and crossed-out and re-written. Ever since the repatriation efforts were redoubled last January, however, the numbers just haven't been adding up.

"Colmados suffer the most in all of this", Peralta said. He leaned over his counter and twirled his keys on his finger. "The night I was taken out, the Guardia took some people who owed me money on credit, too. And it's happened other times since then. Some of those folks never make it back. And those that do don't always make their bill."

He looked outside at two young Haitian men sharing a soda in the sliver of shade provided by his awning. "Think about it this way. Even when there's no work, people still have to eat. So some guy will come to me and say, "Hey look, Peralta, sell me a little rice on credit, will you? I haven't eaten all day.' Or he'll say, "Come on, we're both Haitian. Help me out." So what do I do?" he said, putting his hands up in the air. "If I don't sell it to him, next time he's got money he won't come to my colmado. Hell, he might even go borrow some money that very minute and go buy from somebody else, just to spite me. And if I do sell it to him, put him down on credit, well..."

At this Peralta brought his hands together, glanced vaguely upward, and laughed. "I might as well be giving it away," he said. He explained that these days, when someone does in fact have money, they hold on to it. Debts can wait when you know there's a chance the Guardia can be bought, when you know that 50 or 100 pesos could convince the soldier that your visa is in fact valid, or that maybe you don't look quite so Haitian, that perhaps he didn't even see you at all. Debts to the colmado can wait when a little pocket money can make you disappear in front of the Guardia's eyes as good as if you were dead.

Notes from the Editor:
Dominican authorities have stepped up raids and roundups of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the province of Monte Plata during the last two weeks. According to four prominent human rights organizations, patrols of soldiers and Migration officers have detained and deported at least 10 Dominicans of Haitian descent and have arbitrarily confiscated--and in some cases destroyed--the cedulas (government-issued ID) of 15 others, from the bateyes of Nuevo de Majagual, Piraco, Tripe, Cojobal, and Santa Rosa. Patrols in this province are detaining people on the basis of color, and depriving black Dominicans of their legal documents.

 

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