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PERSPECTIVE ON REFUGEES : Even Buchanan Can Hurt a Haitian : It's all but impossible to prove repression against returning boat people. That doesn't make the U.S. action less wrong.

February 23, 1992|ANNA HUSARSKA | Anna Husarska, a Polish journalist and writer at the New Republic, is a fellow at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland. and

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — No matter why they took to the sea, the Haitian refugees walking down the gangplank of the U.S. Coast Guard cutters must feel that this landing is their defeat, a personal defeat. Having paid several hundred dollars to get on a boat and leave Haiti for good, here they are, dumped in the country they hoped they would never see again.

There aren't many journalists meeting them nowadays at the port, but for me and for most of those who have covered the story since Feb. 3, when forced repatriations were permitted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, each arrival of the cutter means a defeat, a professional defeat.

All of us here have read reports of arrests and killings; we know of people going into hiding; incidents are described to us daily by human-rights monitors. Haitian television even reports some cases of repression. Most evenings we hear shooting as we sit on the terrace of the gingerbread-y Hotel Oloffson, the home base of all of us hacks in Port-au-Prince.

As seen from here, the Supreme Court's decision is inhuman. But it turns out to be extremely difficult to prove that a person forcibly repatriated by the United States and handed over to representatives of a government that the United States considers illegal is a likely target of the repression that is in full swing in this country.

How to tell the political refugees from those who fled for economic reasons, when these two aspects of the Haitian crisis are so intertwined? The American embargo against Haiti, a political act, has serious economic consequences, and the loss of a job, added to a climate of despair and fear, drives many people to take to the sea.

In the countryside, the dreaded local section chiefs, or sheriffs, can force peasants to pay unjust taxes, a sort of ransom for access to water, for letting cattle take a certain route or simply for not harassing a supporter of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unable to come up with such sums, a poor peasant (most here are poor) might prefer to flee the country. How should we define such refugees?

Of course, a journalist cannot possibly approach a person in the crowd on the pier and ask some "Did-you-flee-because-you-are-against-this-regime?" kind of question: Uniformed and plainclothes police watch over every refugee. It is silly to expect a "Yes, sure." Everybody replies: "I am an economic refugee," an unnaturally sophisticated sentence for a Haitian boat-person. You could pick out someone from among the 250 or so who just landed. But whom to pick? The docile-looking youth with the T-shirt announcing "I Love New York" or the defiant tough guy? Or the girl with the drawing of an Elvis-like face on her T-shirt and the wry "Back to Country" slogan. The wrinkled grandfather or the mother with the 4-month-old baby girl?

Say you manage to befriend one of them, ask the name of his or her hometown and offer a ride, to that village or to the spot where the tap-tap, the little bus, leaves. Chances are they will lie about where they live, out of fear or simply so as not to be bothered. Besides, a white journalist will be taken for an American, and the United States has just rejected this person.

That's not all. If you spot someone who turns out to be a genuine political refugee but who couldn't persuade the U.S. immigration service, this person will most certainly not return to her or his hometown, where the local section chief (probably a Duvalierist reinstated after the September coup that overthrew Aristide) knows everyone. And return to what? Most refugees sold everything to pay for the boat ride.

But suppose a reporter overcame all these obstacles. What right does a white journalist have to follow returnees home? To argue that media attention will protect them from repression is not valid because most journalists don't return to follow up a story. Thugs do return, once the press has left.

I met one man, Pierre Michelet Joseph, 21, now in hiding, whose home in the Carrefour slum was visited first by an American TV crew and then by the police, probably reacting to both the man's return and the reporter's visit. The Americans, long gone, left him with a crumpled photocopy of the letter they wrote to the U.S. Embassy here about his case. He carries it around like a voodoo charm, but far from protecting, it incriminates.

Some journalists go to villages where they know human rights were abused. Section chiefs are not keen to see reporters. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or agreements on free access to information are not their bedside reading. The experience of my colleagues Alan Tomlinson from the BBC and Nat Sheppard from the Chicago Tribune--held for six hours and threatened with death in the remote northern village where more than 100 houses of Aristide supporters were burned to the ground some weeks earlier--shows that this way of gathering information does not work either.

I spent the day after the New Hampshire primary in Cazale, a village you wouldn't want to drive to in a non-rental car. A man called Frederique Alberic had been killed there a week ago; the whole village knew him as the one who stood up for the peasants when they refused to pay the local section chief the ransom for water use. One young boy, more confident than the others, confessed that he voted for Aristide. He was in hiding for a few weeks after the coup and was now thinking of taking the boat.

Back in Port-au-Prince, I heard about Pat Buchanan's good showing in New Hampshire. My first thought was that President Bush would now be even less likely to grant "temporary protected status" to Haitian refugees or accept a six-month moratorium on deportations. Poor Haitians: How unlucky that repression blooms in their country while a U.S. election campaign is in full swing.

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