Ti Tanyen, Haiti's killing fields

By J Taylor Wentges | 1994-01-01 12:00:00

It is called a dawn patrol. Every morning in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince, journalists slowly search the garbage heaps along National Highway 1 between the harbour and the airport for fresh bodies. They are rarely disappointed. An A.P. photographer tells how he found a young man the day before, throat cut, left at this busy roadside all day in the hot sun as a stark warning against anti-government words or actions.

Bodies that are unclaimed are eventually taken to Ti Tanyen, a paupers grave just north of the capital which has come to accommodate hundreds of unknown victims of violent death-a place few Haitians dare go, or even know the exact location of. It is not by coincidence that this stretch of road passes through Cite Soleil, the suburb where the capital's most destitute live, and where democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has his greatest support.

In 1990 Aristide received 67% of the popular vote in the first and only truly free election in Haiti's history. Nine months later, on September 30, 1991, he was overthrown in a military coup, having angered key elements of the armed forces and business elites by refusing to share power with them.

Since then, the poor have become the targets of paramilitary death squads, commonly referred to as Attaches or FRAP (Front for the Advancement and Progress) of Haiti. These military forces are little more than the remnants of the dreaded Tontons Macoutes security forces that terrorized the opponents of the dictatorial Duvalier family. Led initially by President Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier from 1957 to 1971, they held supreme authority until the military overthrow of Papa Doc's son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, in 1986.

Today, with a population outnumbering Haiti's tiny military force 1000 to 1, terror is still the most effective weapon of the elite. Eschewing the tactic of open mass slaughter, Haiti's military leaders have learned that to control domestic unrest, and at the same time minimize the chance of foreign intervention, one merely has to surgically eliminate key Aristide supporters.

Visiting Ti Tanyen is a task in itself. At Port-au-Prince's Holiday Inn, a popular meeting spot for journalists, one of the many Haitian men who try to peddle their services as guides warns that "it is not safe to go because the Attaches often are there, and might shoot any unwanted trespassers." Many of these "guides" are generally believed to be informers for the military regime, paid to keep an eye on the press and to dissuade them from going to sensitive areas. The advice is therefore ignored.

Since no one except those in the immediate vicinity really knows where the grave-yard is, it is best to take a taxi, as the driver is able to stop frequently and ask directions. Before setting out, however, the current U.N. arms and oil embargo makes it necessary to go to a very discreet black market gas station at 70 Rue des Cesars in the crowded market district. At the curbside, a man pumps gas from a barrel into gallon jugs while, nearby, another with a shotgun looks on. The driver buys only one gallon, but pays an unbelievable price of U.S. $9.00 Prior to sanctions, gas was only U.S. $1.00per gallon.

As laid out by the United Nations-brokered Governor's Island Accord of July 3, 1993, Aristide was to have returned to Haiti the following October 30. When the country's military leader, General Raoul Cedras, reneged on the agreement in early October, the U.N. moved quickly to establish a naval blockade of Haiti's main harbor in Port-au-Prince. On any given day U.S. and other warships can be seen patrolling offshore.

Coupled with these sanctions, the collapse of order after the fall of Duvalier has rendered the capital literally a sewer. There are no government services to clean up the mountainous piles of garbage that block many of the key intersections, and it is commonplace to see people bathing in the gutters. At night, the frequent power outages hide a deserted city-silent, except for the sound of periodic gunfire.

Although it is only a 45 minute drive north to Ti Tanyen, it is easy to miss. Viewed from this empty stretch of highway, all one sees is low scrubland extending west for a mile to the serene and picturesque Golfe de la Gonave. Jean-FranCois, the care-taker of the site, points to the narrow dirt road entering the area and explains that this is where the Attaches regularly drive in to drop off bodies in the middle of the night.

A short walk quickly reveals countless small hills and mounds; one sees the ground littered with human bones, skulls, and shreds of clothing. "I buried these six this morning," Jean-FranCois says as he points to six fresh plots. In fact, so crowded is Ti Tanyen that it is difficult to walk anywhere without stepping on (or tripping over) a grave or some poor soul's skeletal remains.

The U.N. and the U.S. have pulled out of Haiti, afraid of another Somalia fiasco. Moreover neither can decide what future course of action is best. In Washington, the administration is split between a pro-Aristide president and an anti-Aristide CIA; and without American leadership, the U.N. is impotent. Caught between a brutal regime on the one hand and an indecisive world body on the other, Haitians see little hope for a return to democracy.

The taxi driver is visibly uneasy, anxious to return to the city. Before leaving Ti Tanyen, however, Jean-FranCois has one more thing he wants to show us. Demonstrating how commonplace death has become in Haiti, he deftly uses his machete to scoop up a skull through the bullet hole in the back-and poses for the camera.

J Taylor Wentges was in Haiti from October 27 to November 10 1993. He is doing research for a PhD thesis to begin in September 1994.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994 , page 8. Some rights reserved.

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