Untold Stories: Haiti

Fifteen minutes until visiting hours. Time dragged. Damien was sitting on the floor, his back leaning against the wall, trying to keep it together, waiting. On the other side of the wall, out on the street, people were burning trash. The smoky smell seeped inside the detention center. Damien sat in the corner furthest away from the door, next to the metal bars separating the cell from the people coming and going along the hallway. He was hoping to hide his face by moving to the back, but he knew that it was a pointless effort. Anyone could see him through the bars.  

He had hardly eaten anything since his arrest three days earlier. Not a good thing, as he was diabetic—he required not only regular meals, but nutritious ones. To not fall into a coma. No such luxuries are available in prison. His brother brought him food every day, but Damien was unable to eat. He just couldn’t stomach it—the stench, due to a lack of plumbing, the heat, the noise, the sense of defeat, the lurking fear that no acceptable future was in the cards for him anymore. He thought, “If I die, I don’t have to worry about a future.”
 
He could not muster the courage to call his 16-year-old son, to risk letting the boy hear him cry, to allow him to see that his father was helpless. Damien knew that he was failing to live up to the ideal of the strong and accomplished man, the father and protector he had worked hard to become, the man he would want his son to know him to be. He was thinking about the time when he and the boy were still living in the same house, then about the time his son would come to visit him, to confide his secrets to him, after Damien was not able to afford rent anymore and had to move out of their home to the living room of a relative, while his son moved into the small bedroom in the house his mother lived in with her family members. 

Damien was thinking about the time, before the earthquake of 2010, when all three of them still lived together. Then about the time, after the earthquake, when his son was kidnapped and Damien had to negotiate with the kidnappers for two days before he could strike a deal with them and have his son back safe. Two sleepless days and nights of eternity… He had had a practice run for such a situation, years back, in 2009, when his wife had been kidnapped and Damien had to do the same for her. Both times, Damien did what he had to do: not call the police or his friends at the humanitarian organizations and foreign newspapers, if he wanted to see his family members alive. Play it cool, talk to people, let them see that he had connections in the right places as well, meaning the big men among the locals, not the police or the currently present UN mission. Wait for the phone call he dreaded and still hoped to receive, after his son had been missing for over 24 hours. The call that told him where he was and under what conditions he would see him again. Impossible conditions. Then keep calm and alter the demands, force them somehow within the realm of the possible, in a short enough time to make sure his then fifteen-year-old survived unharmed, physically and mentally. If that is even possible. Those two nights away from his son were the most sleepless among the many he had had in his life.

“Your brother is here,” the guard said, ‘“you can go talk to him now.” Damien stood up slowly. His head was dizzy and it took him almost a minute to steady himself. “You made it through all of that and more,” he thought, “why would this beat you now?” He walked to the metal door to meet his brother.

Philippe arrived with food and news from his lawyer, who had agreed to take the case free of charge. The brothers shook hands through the metal bars and the guards gestured to Philippe to taste the food before giving it to Damien. It was standard procedure, they had to make sure food from outside was not used to poison one of the arrested, either by someone else’s request or by that of the person being held. Philippe took a spoonful, swallowed it, and looked at the guard. His face reflected the unspoken question: is this enough or do I need to take another bite? The guard opened the door for him. They were allowed five minutes; any additional time depended on the goodwill of the guards.

These few minutes were both emotional and practical. The brothers wanted to just sit there and let the tears come, let shame and defeat take over, give up. But they only had five minutes to try to be collected and cool-headed, to try to come up with ideas to resolve this situation, so they sat there and talked, the tears only visible through the redness in their eyes. 

Damien did not touch the food his brother brought him; his stomach could not even take a bite. His brother asked: “what was your blood sugar level today?” “488…” He said. “Anything over a 110 is too high. I probably should be dead.” His brother told him his lawyer would talk to the judge the next day. After five minutes, the guard gestured to Philippe. Damien followed his brother with his eyes until he could not see him anymore, then he returned to the corner and sat down. 

I met Damien on my first trip to Haiti in the summer of 2017, when I was conducting field research for my MA thesis at Stony Brook University. I was writing about the connection between Haitian religious concepts and political mobilization, in particular about Vodou, the Duvalier dictatorship, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Following my graduation, in December 2017, I kept returning to Haiti to continue investigating questions of the practical present, rather than theorizing over events of the past.

Damien had been my translator and driver since my first visit, up until the time he had to stop driving because his diabetes affected his vision too much for him to drive safely. In reality, since the moment we started to work together, he had been more than what those titles indicate: he had been a natural friend, someone I could always rely on in contexts and situations where a lot of trust is needed. He understood my project idea for Lives in (R)evolution very well, and had been more an equal partner rather than simply an assistant to me. When I was in Haiti we spent most waking hours together, driving to interviews, and collecting material for my current freelance, multimedia project. We had a lot of time to talk, a lot of time to ask questions. As time passed, he started to answer my questions more and more openly.

I was born and raised in Hungary, which, during the long years of socialist dictatorship, and following the regime’s fall, in the 1990s, was a popular target destination for typically well-intentioned, but unfortunately frequently misguided international development projects, of condescension dressed up as advice and higher morality. Many North Americans group Hungary together with Western Europe’s economic and political realities, but the truth is that it experienced decades of political oppression and official corruption. Because of these connections, I felt in certain ways more at home in Haiti than in the United States. Clearly, the political and economic history of the Caribbean is different than it was behind the Iron Curtain, but I was familiar with the way certain things work in Haiti today, such as the actions and reactions to life given by people living with limited means and extensive ingenuity, people who routinely have to make do while not feeling like they are permanent victims.

It is no secret to anyone that Haiti has a thriving NGO presence, and industry is at full boom in the country. Both religious and secularly oriented organizations supply services that should be, but are not, provided by the Haitian government. Nonprofits and their campaigns function based on the idea that the Northern/Western notion of “the Poor,” with a capital letter, will be the most equitable and efficient way to deliver assistance. My experiences both in Haiti and in Hungary, and my conversations with people in Haiti, made me question this orthodoxy. Damien’s life, one among many I have seen, made the strongest impression on me. That is why I chose to share his story.   

Damien was born in 1977 in Port-au-Prince to parents with slightly above-average means, if we take Haiti’s majority as baseline. His father had a job more often than not. Damien grew up poor, but not devastatingly so. He was sweet and sensitive, an altar boy in the local church, learning to play the piano so he could contribute to religious events. He landed a fellowship to attend a bilingual high school run by the Catholic Church where he learned to speak English and French fluently. In the Haitian context, he thus became privileged, the possessor of opportunities.

After his high school graduation Damien started working odd jobs to support himself, his sister and his mother; by this time his father had left the family and his younger brother was studying at university, unable to contribute much financially. Along those jobs, Damien volunteered to teach at his former high school, became a community organizer, and an advocate for those less fortunate than himself. He eventually started a small business as a translator, a fixer and a travel organizer for foreign missionary groups and journalists who spent a few days or weeks in Haiti. In the beginning things went well. He landed enough contracts to make ends meet. He got married, had a son and paid his own way through Journalism School. He worked hard to become a journalist in his own right, not as an “assistant” to foreigners who ends up unmentioned in anything they publish about his country.

Over the past five years, political instability has led to a growing number of demonstrations and shut-downs of roads, businesses and government offices. The deepening economic crisis led to rising fuel prices. Contracts with foreigners have become scarce and much less lucrative than before. The latest contract Damien obtained, this past February, was terminated because the whole country was practically shut down by political demonstrations. The missionaries Damien was working for were airlifted to the Dominican Republic and then sent back to the US, but Damien was not airlifted. He made it back to the capital on a motorcycle taxi through burning barricades, through unpaved country roads hazy with dust and the smoke of protest fires. When the smoke cleared, he found himself in the same place again, jobless, with an old, broken car, and truncated pay which did not cover his expenses.

The diabetes diagnosis hit a year ago, when Damien had already been unemployed for almost a year. He does not have the money to buy proper food for his condition, so it mostly goes untreated. His blood sugar levels are consistently so high that it affects his ability to work and function well, to the extent that he would be considered disabled and eligible for assistance in the US. In Haiti such a category does not exist. Damien is expected to fully support his son and himself, whether he is sick or not. 

In April, Damien was arrested because he failed to repay a private debt that he owed since he had borrowed money to pay school fees for his son in 2015. The lending party claimed that he was in hiding and refusing payment, so the debt became a criminal offense, rather than a civil lawsuit by a peculiarity of the Haitian legal system. When I saw the photo taken by his brother, with the handcuffs on his wrist and tears in his eyes, I was not sure I would ever be able to see him again. I was not sure that he would be mentally and physically strong enough to survive his detention, and a predictably long legal procedure, under conditions that reign in Haitian holding institutions. My communication with him was scattered during his arrest. The guards took away his cellphone as they did not want anyone to take pictures inside the facility, especially not someone who has connections with news outlets in foreign countries. It might be inconvenient, giving them bad press. News mostly came through Philippe, although we managed to arrange for a permission so I could talk to him on the phone a few times. 

After a week at the detention center, Damien and his lawyer succeeded in negotiating a deal: he was temporarily released from jail and had one week to come up with the money he owed. If he failed to hand over the full amount after the seven-day period, about 6000 dollars after compounded interest, his case would return to the infamously corrupt Haitian justice system, and Damien would return to prison, where he would likely not survive.

Damien’s father and I came up with the money. Damien escaped having to return to jail, but he has not escaped the cycle of unending debts, the feeling that he will never be in charge of his own life. Neither did he escape the reality of still being unemployed while fighting severe diabetes, one that requires the type of food and medical attention which he is unable to afford. If his eyes deteriorate further, or if the nerves in his legs give in and he needs amputation, his chances for finding work will become practically zero. Still, each time I speak with him, he is hopeful. He is constantly in contact with people, trying to find work in a country with extreme levels of unemployment even for the educated. Damien has not given up.  

In order to qualify for U.S. assistance, Haitians must fit into a category of perceived need. These categories—the urban poor, rural subsistence farmers, mothers at risk, people with AIDS, people who have been sexually abused—are important and real, but very limited in determining who actually needs help. The reality is that Damien does not fit into any of these groups, and yet he is definitely sick, tired, and in need of help. And there are many others like him. 

What are his family’s options for the future? If Damien dies because of his untreated diabetes, or goes blind, will his son become a victim (or survivor), will he then turn out to be vulnerable enough to qualify for some form of aid? Does the boy first need to lose his father in order to be worthy of assistance? Or risk his life to make it to the United States border with the help of a smuggler, so he can turn into a ‘refugee’, an ‘asylum seeker’, a person suddenly belonging to a category we can legitimately advocate for? Is the trauma that the son must have endured during his kidnapping going to be enough to make him qualify for North American sympathy? What if he says that he was not traumatized, that this is just the way life is in his country for the moment, and that what he needs is not counseling, pity and advocacy, but an opportunity for his father to find work that pays enough to be in a position to set his life straight again? What if both Damien and his son prefer not to be seen as members of any subsidy-worthy category as defined by US politics or current codes of morality, but as human beings faced with hard choices and challenging situations? Do they, then, deserve our empathy and financial help, or is that only reserved for individuals whom we can also pity?

Damien’s name was changed, alongside that of his brother, in order to protect their identities. Damien hopes his story will help shift the discourse and contribute to effecting meaningful change in his country.

Lives in (R)evolution is a multimedia project that documents the lives of people in Haiti in distinct settings. The project was designed to complement and thereby resist the mainstream narrative of North American public conversations, which frame Haitians as either quintessential victims or glorified revolutionaries engaged in a fight with the capitalist expansion of the global North. As opposed to stories that feature people as representatives of currently trending social categories, Lives in (R)evolution focuses on complex accounts that feature individual human beings in challenging situations that they do their best to overcome. 

About the author

Ildiko Tillmann is an author, researcher and documentary photographer who works along the shifting borders of art and documentary journalism. She was born and raised in Hungary, lived in Israel in the mid- 1990s and moved to the United States in 2000. She is currently based on Long Island, New York, where she raises her two children with an acute awareness that there is a whole world out there, different from their immediate surroundings. She has a Law Degree from her native country and an MA in Africana Studies from SUNY, Stony Brook. Other than Hungarian, she speaks English, Spanish, French and Hebrew fluently and is working on Haitian Creole to help her current freelance work in Haiti. Since moving to the U.S., she has volunteered as an educator and ESL instructor for immigrants whose first language is Spanish. Her professional interests in Haiti center on the complexities of intercultural communication and on the consequences of cultural differences and the use of North-American based narratives within the humanitarian aid industry in Haiti. She has written about the problematic nature of U.S. academic and media discourse concerning Haiti and its people. Her writing also focuses on the shared nature of human experience across cultural and geographical boundaries. She has been published in Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diasporas, The Haitian Times, Caribbean Quarterly, and The Caribbean Writer. 
 

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