For Haitian migrants, hope is thicker than tragedies
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
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 happened?
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 said.
``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
``I couldn't discourage her,'' he said of Jean-Louis, 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 recalled.
FROM FAR AWAY
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 country.
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 place.''
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 mass.
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.''