Haiti’s ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier Photo: AP
Victims of Baby Doc’s brutal regime are warily watching his moves after the former ruler returned to Haiti last week, writes Jacqui Goddard in Port au Prince.
Telegraph | Jan 22, 2011
By Jacqui Goddard, Port au Prince
It was known to some as Haiti’s Auschwitz, a death camp where innocent hordes met with horror at the hands of a regime determined to cleanse the country of political dissenters and democratic thinkers.
Hidden inside a slum, whose dirt-poor residents now face their own daily battles for survival, crumbled walls and concrete slabs are all that remain of Fort Dimanche, where tens of thousands were tortured and killed under the successive dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, from 1957 to 1986.
The stories of what happened at this notorious prison are extreme – beatings and savage abuse, blood running through cells, corpses hauled into mass graves.
“This was the Duvaliers’ torture chamber. This was their own hell they created,” said Robert Duval, one of the few who made it out of here alive.
But now it is more than just memories that are here to remind Haitians of their grim past. Holed up in a multi-million dollar villa overlooking the sprawl and suffering of Port au Prince, Jean-Claude Duvalier, 59, one of the 20th century’s most infamous despots, is back haunting Haiti once more.
Sitting stiffly at a wooden table, his speech seems slightly impeded, his voice is soft and he appears unable to move his neck and shoulders. His words, read from a sheet of paper, were similarly weak for a leader who claims to be here to promote reconciliation. There is no outright apology for his crimes – just a vaguely worded nod to the past, and a rented crowd to cheer him on.
“I take this opportunity to express once again my deep sorrow to those of my fellow countrymen who say, rightly, that they were victims under my government,” he said late on Friday in his first public pronouncement since he arrived.
He did not outline what had happened to those who suffered under his regime but instead, speaking mainly in French, he offered “sympathies to my millions of supporters who, after my voluntary departure from Haiti in 1986 to avoid a bloodbath and to allow a swift resolution to the political crisis, were left to themselves.”
He said thousands of his own supporters were “assassinated, suffocated, interrogated, subjected to tire necklaces burnings; their houses, their possessions were pillaged, uprooted and torched” after he fled to France.
He was back, he said, to help rebuild his earthquake-scarred, politically-divided country, though he did not specify how.
“When you make sure that the bell of national reconciliation resounds in all hearts… and in each district, neighbourhood and home, then we will rapidly reach the day where all of Haiti’s children, men and women, in the country and in the diaspora, will be able to march hand in hand without exclusion and to participate together in the rebirth of Haiti,” he declared.
He shuffled off to wave grandly from a terrace to a throng who waved photographs of him and broke into song: “If Duvalier is back, there will be no hunger.”
He declared himself “impressed by the welcome I have received, especially from the crowd of young people who don’t know me.” But in fact their attendance at the villa was engineered. “We were paid 10 Haitian dollars (US$1.25) to show up,” one of the men divulged.
The luxurious rented mansion is far removed from the realities that he claims he has returned to Haiti to help fix.
From this wealthy neighbourhood of Montagne Noire, situated along a steep road up a mountainside, the rich elite gaze down from their pink bougainvillea-clad gardens upon the dusty, grey slums and camps that are home to millions. There is a courtyard with a fountain, lush plants swaying beside manicured lawns, a swimming pool and shaded balcony.
“It’s not just a house, it’s a town in there – in fact, a small country,” said one of the few passers-by.
The shocking reappearance of the despot known as Baby Doc – who ruled for 15 years after inheriting the leadership in 1971 from his late father, Papa Doc – has put another surreal kink in Haiti’s bizarre and beleaguered landscape, clouding the road to recovery after decades of political chaos, bloodshed, corruption, last year’s earthquake, last November’s fraudulent first-round elections, and an ongoing cholera epidemic.
He is reported to have been encouraged back after seeing film of graffiti in his praise, though suspicions abound as to his true motivation.
The bulk of the fortune that he left Haiti with in 1986 is said to have gone – initially on high living, but latterly on an expensive divorce – and there are questions over why he is back now, just as the international community is topping up the coffers with billions more in earthquake aid.
According to some reports he needed to show Swiss authorities that he was not wanted on criminal charges in his homeland, in order to unlock access to $5.7 million held in frozen Swiss bank accounts.
If so, his return last week backfired when he was slapped with corruption charges for looting Haiti’s treasury during his rule, and a lawsuit for crimes against humanity.
His presence has sent chills through those who survived his repression and the loved ones of those who did not.
Mr Duval, 57, can remember the screams that filled Fort Dimanche during the 17 months that he was incarcerated without charge in the mid-1970s. Estimates of the number killed under the Duvaliers’ rule start at 30,000. Mr Duval was one of just 106 prisoners released alive from the prison in 1977.
“Duvalier should be in prison himself right now. I was mad that he came back, angry, shocked. He is a worthless person,” he said, picking his way through the ruins of the prison he once occupied.
As a child, he remembers watching live executions on television, schoolchildren being made to go to the national stadium to watch as a firing squad pumped bullets into opposition activists, and of how they were indoctrinated into making the sign of the cross while chanting: “Au nom du pere, du fils, et Duvalier, Amen” – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and Duvalier. Amen.”
He remembers seeing neighbours hustled off at gunpoint to a place from which they never returned. He remembers the political prisoner who was strapped to a chair at the roadside and burned.
He was never told why he was arrested himself at the age of 22, other than that he “probably rubbed people up the wrong way” with pro-democracy talk.
“I found myself in a 13ft by 14ft cell with 40 other men, day in, day out, never seeing the sun. People died, two or three every day. Sometimes we kept the body in the cell to get the extra ration of food until the body would start smelling too bad. Then we’d call ‘Death’ and they’d take the body away in a wheelbarrow,” he recalled.
There were infestations of mosquitoes, faeces overflowing from the one toilet that served the cell, dogs howling at night as they gorged on the flesh of the corpses dumped outside.
Prisoners were woken at 2am to take a 30-second “shower” under a dripping tap. They slept curled on tiny mats made of banana leaves – “that was your bed, but it was also your coffin,” he said – and he got tuberculosis.
Food was scant and his weight sank to 90 pounds. “My eyes were down to here,” he said, pointing to the bottom of his face.
“Some people died because they became crazy. In Fort Dimanche, you had to be very sharp mentally to survive. You would say to yourself that surviving is a victory against the regime.”
One of his cellmates was a peasant whose “crime” was that he had associated with a man named Coniliste. Overhearing him speak the name, and mistaking it for the word “Communist”, members of the Tonton Macoute – a sinister paramilitary force set up by Papa Doc in 1959 – hauled him off to Fort Dimanche. “He died in there. All because of a word,” said Mr Duval.
But others in Haiti have a different view of the former dictator and his militia.
Roger Marbial, 59, a former member of the Tonton Macoute who claims that he never harmed a fly – “and even if I had I would not say so” – insisted that the volunteer informants were simply there “to watch Duvalier’s back” and that a small minority gave it a bad name. Duvalier, he claims somewhat naively, was a victim, not a persecutor.
“He was just 19 when he became president – it was others around him who did the bad stuff, he wasn’t the one who had the real power,” he insisted.
Fears of Duvalier’s wholesale return to power are scant; he lacks the apparatus to do so and enjoys only limited support, but there is concern over the ignorance with which some sections of the population weigh up his legacy and the potential for instability that their sympathy for him could cause.
“Particularly the younger generations, they have no knowledge of what life was really like under Duvalier, they say times were good when they weren’t. They have this false nostalgia, it’s not realistic,” said Pierre Esperance, director of Haiti’s National Network for the Defence of Human Rights.
Alix Fils-Aime was also imprisoned at Fort Dimanche after he was kidnapped by Duvalier agents in 1976 while teaching peasants farming techniques and helping them to form cooperatives.
Despite his grim experience, he says that he is ready to pardon Duvalier if he will acknowledge his crimes.
“What’s at stake here is the future of human relations in Haiti. My grandchildren now play with the grandchildren of former Duvalier henchmen so what do we tell those children – that we should live in the past and they should forge their future relationships based on conflict? I think we are past that.
“The first act of humanity Duvalier could show would be to be man enough to say ’I did wrong’…and for those who helped him beat their chests and say ’I did wrong.’ We have a great opportunity here to raise ourselves above personal suffering and political quarrels.”
Over the ruins of Fort Dimanche, a slum community has grown up, it’s residents largely oblivious to the painful history and significance of the place, and of the mass grave full of anonymous bodies.
The military police headquarters that also stood here is now just a shell. Children play chase in and out of its derelict doorways. A naked girl stands in a tin basin, being bathed by her mother. Bloated grey pigs snuffle through piles of festering, foul-smelling trash.
Mr Duval traces the perimeter of what used to be a cell, now just a line of bricks, as Dera Denord, 48, watches from his home, a structure more akin to a semi-collapsed garden shed, which stands where the prison once did.
“I know this was Fort Dimanche and that when people arrived here they never came out again. Duvalier was a mean guy, that’s accepted. But under him, things were cheaper. Now life is harder,” said Mr Denord, as Mr Duval shakes his head in despair.
“I’m happy that Duvalier’s here, maybe he could come back to do his job,” Mr Denord continued.
“He didn’t do anything to me – I think he would be good for Haiti. The only mistake he made was when he killed all the pigs,” he said, referring to the mass slaughter in 1978 of millions of pigs due to a swine fever scare – a move that decimated livestock farming and contributed to Baby Doc’s downfall.
Drying on tarpaulins on the dusty ground between shacks are hundreds of mud cakes, made from dust and water, which count as “food” in these slums. “That’s what keeps us alive,” said Mr Denord, a father of four.
“Rene Preval doesn’t even look at us, he doesn’t do anything for us,” he adds of the current president. “Only God looks at us.”
Mr Duval is pensive, mulling difficult memories. He clenches his closed fists to his chest, as if in pain.
“When Baby Doc came back, I had the same feeling I had in the prison, like my chest closing in on me,” he said. “It’s painful. Baby Doc is back and I don’t want him here. I don’t forgive. I don’t forget.”