The Miami Herald
Sun, May. 16, 2004
In Haiti's chaos, unpunished rape was norm

As law and order in Haiti collapsed in the months before President JeanBertrand Aristide fled, rape with impunity became a tool of terror and a common crime of opportunity.


PORT-AU-PRINCE -- With the night lit by burning barricades, a delicate young woman named Eozelor was walking near her little cinder-block home when three men tried to sweet-talk her into the shadows.

She refused, so they punched her in the side of the head, shoved her into a dark corner of an industrial area and raped her on the dirt and gravel.

When they finished, Eozelor ran crying to the police station. One officer seemed concerned -- then pulled the 21-year-old into a dark guardhouse and raped her while two others watched.

Her rape, like so many others here, was suffered alone and was lost in the din of political upheaval that engulfed this Caribbean nation in the weeks before and after the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

No one ever looked for the rapists. No one reported the police abuse. Eozelor has yet to visit a hospital or a shelter, much less seek psychological counseling. Her body is breaking out in sores, and her menstruation is coming out in clots.

''The only thing I feel right now is that inside my body is dirty,'' she said.

Hundreds of women and girls -- some younger than 6 -- were raped, often by police and pro-Aristide gunmen called chimres, with impunity, according to human rights observers and local women's shelters.

They say the situation for the last two years had already rivaled the terror that the military regimes and death squads of the early 1990s inflicted on women.

But the last four months degenerated far beyond what anyone could imagine.

''It was worse than I have ever seen,'' said Yolette Jeanty, director of the women's rights group Kay Fanm. ``At least before, there were some ways to get justice.''


Rape has always carried a certain level of impunity in Haiti. Even the concept of rape is often limited to young victims.

''The adult women, they don't consider it rape,'' Jeanty said. ``There is this mentality that if you're not a virgin, it's not a rape.''

By Haitian law, rape is considered a crime against honor -- a squandering of virginity that can often be settled with a payment to the victim's family.

''Sometimes the judge will even suggest as a reparation that the rapist marry the girl,'' Jeanty said.

And more often than not, it is not the rapist who reaps shame and scorn, but the woman. So, few ever report the crime.

Eozelor did not report hers. Nor did Daphney, who was 27 when two police officers stopped her two years ago on her way to a job sewing T-shirts. They raped her next to a Texaco station in broad daylight.

She still has not summoned the courage to tell her family, and she has to avert her gaze when she recounts the attack. Her eyes well up, and she speaks just above a whisper. ``I don't even know how to put it into words.''

Like the majority of rapes, hers is not even a statistic.

Women's rights groups estimate that only one in 10 women report their rapes, but there is no way of knowing for sure.

Between January and April, Kay Fanm documented 46 rapes, involving mostly young girls. That is about 13 a month, compared with fewer than two a month in the preceding four years.

A larger women's group, Solidarity of Haitian Women, reported 46 ''political rapes'' -- those allegedly conducted by armed political factions -- in January alone.

Under military rule in the early 1990s, ''rape was used as a form of political repression,'' said Olga Benoit, the group's director. ``We can see now that the situation was repeated during Aristide. The tool of rape was used systematically by the chimres.''


A 22-year-old woman named Nadege told The Herald that chimres stalked her for months, trying to find her adoptive father, a university professor active in demonstrations against the government.

Finally, in October, they came out of the darkness to her house in Leogane. They beat her, threw her into a car and took her back to Port-au-Prince, where she was raped and held hostage for 18 days.

The tragic irony to stories like that, Benoit said, is that one reason the United States restored Aristide to power in 1994 was ostensibly the rapes perpetrated by the people who ousted him in 1991.

During his exile, the paramilitary group known as FRAPH allegedly raped mothers in front of their families. Yet, only a handful of rapists were convicted after Aristide returned to power.

Haiti's National Coalition for Human Rights places blame for the rapes squarely on Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

''Lavalas were the ones encouraging impunity,'' said Pierre Esperance, the coalition's director. ``They opened the doors for chimres to do whatever they wanted.''

Lavalas leaders deny the charge, saying they had nothing to do with whoever committed the crimes. ''Now anything done by gangs is blamed on Lavalas,'' said party member Leslie Voltaire.

While the women's advocates have received reports of political rapes by only pro-Aristide groups, they have no illusions that the armed rebels who ousted Aristide this time -- mostly former chimres, FRAPH and military -- are above the crime.

At least now they see a window for justice. Benoit and Jeanty are busy documenting the attacks and working with attorneys to bring cases to the justice department -- when, and if, it begins functioning again.

There is little else that women like Khetia, a new mother from the town of St. Marc, can hope for.


On Feb. 27, Khetia, 21, accompanied her friend Anne to a police station to look for Anne's boyfriend, who had been detained by chimres.

When the pair arrived, there were no police. A man hit Khetia in the mouth with the butt of his pistol, chipping a tooth.

''Five men dragged me into a room and raped me over and over,'' she said. ``They kept me until late at night.''

She was kicked onto the street. The rapes had ripped the tissue where she had a C-section just a month before. ''I couldn't even walk,'' she said. ``A man on the street had to carry me home.''

Her friend Anne, 25, was also raped.

Weeks later, in a women's shelter in Port-au-Prince, 50 miles south, they told their story to a Haitian radio reporter, who broadcast their full names.

When they returned to St. Marc, everyone knew what happened. They were threatened. They were shunned. The father of Khetia's infant son took him away.

''He was ashamed that all of St. Marc knew I had been raped,'' she said.

She is in hiding now.


What is perhaps most disturbing about those cases is the impunity shown in such brazen assaults.

Take Lourna, 13. On Dec. 27, two men with machetes climbed through her bedroom window and raped her while her mother was out for the night. ''I know who they are,'' she said. ``They are from the neighborhood. One has two kids. The other has a daughter.''

Or Tristel, 9, who taps her tiny shoes and fidgets in her seat as she earnestly tries to tell her story. Her stepfather, enraged at her mother, kidnapped the girl and raped her repeatedly over two months, she said. When the police found her, they didn't arrest him.

And there is Sonita, 21, a wisp of a woman, not even 90 pounds, living in a shack in the slums with a skeletal baby who is on the verge of death.

She made the mistake of going to a hospital in search of treatment for vaginal hemmorhaging.

She was in a hospital bathroom one day when armed chimres burst in. Two of them put a pistol to her neck and a rifle to her temple, and raped her.

She screamed. No one came. When the two finished, others lined up. Finally, a groundskeeper ordered them to stop and took her back to her bed.

After that, everyone, including the doctors, fled the hospital, leaving her alone for days.

''I think about it constantly, wondering why this happened to me,'' she said. ``It's a lot to have in my head.''