Fr. Rick Frechette: Burying the Dead, and Raising Cain
The Ethical & Medical Advisor of NPHI shares his thoughts and experiences on the current social unrest in Haiti.
September 24, 2019 - Haiti
For the last year and a half especially (not to mention the last 400 years), the Haitian people have been suffering deep political and social upheavals, often violent, caused by the decreased value of the local currency by half, and increased cost of living by a quarter.
Do the death math.
With whatever meager income you have (for the vast majority of the people here, this is still less than $800 per year), you can now afford 25% of what you used to be able to buy.
People cannot live like this.
In addition, the severe shortages of fuel, the scandal over the funds that subsidized fuel, and the frequent and violent blocking of the roads, bring dramatic challenges to every single person in Haiti without exception.
Imagine some of these challenges for a hospital, a religious mission, or a benevolent organization.
For a hospital, a first issue is what to do with your trash, when the professional company that is licensed to safely dispose of infectious and dangerous waste, is weeks delinquent in their trash collection, because of the scarcity of fuel, and the violence.
I won’t press your imagination, but I will say I have never seen so many maggots in my life.
A more urgent problem for us for the past 10 days has been, what do we do with our decaying dead (mostly children, by far) when we have surpassed both the limits of space in refrigeration, and the outer time limit that refrigeration works for the non-embalmed.
The maggots are far worse in these situations.
The problem of the dead being especially urgent for us two days ago (September 24), since roads to our usual burial land in Titanyin was for the 10 days impassible because of the violence, I engaged our second and less frequent option, burial at Drouillard Cemetery near the airport of Port au Prince.
I went through burning barricades Tuesday morning with my small Polaris, which could dodge the fires well, to secure graves for 55 children and 6 deceased mothers who did not survive childbirth. I was given permission for the burials, and paid the usual and required fee. I was given an 11am clearance.
We prepared and loaded the bodies on our truck, and passing the same burning barricades a second time with cumbersome vehicles, we arrived at Drouillard after 11am, with 11 staff aboard to help with the burials.
Except for a crowd of curious people at the gate of the cemetery, there was no incident.
Our St. Luke Foundation logo, work and reputation are well known among the people. This is also true of the respected and known work founded by Fr. Bill Wasson, NPH Haiti (Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs).
Suddenly, as we were finishing the burials, the crowd became unruly and aggressive.
After the bodies were unloaded, I had already wandered a short distance to offer a rosary for the people we just buried and all the dead at Drouillard.
So, I had no idea of the cause of the growing fury.
What happened was, our funeral ritual became a political football.
Our simple, very humble burial for these children, who found no peace in this life, and whose deplorable poverty made their lives painful, sorrowful and short, was now being manipulated for political purposes.
A popular radio station, with scouts out on the streets full of burning barricades, sounded this message over the radio waves as we buried the dead:
"We have information that St Luke Hospital is burying the bodies of the people killed for participating in manifestations."
This was meant to inflame hatred toward the President, among all the people demonstrating against him on the streets.
We were immediately seen as agents of the government, covering up the evidence of their attacks on demonstrators, by dumping their victims in anonymous graves.
All hell broke loose, and we could not calm the people with any words or efforts.
The 11 of us were separated into two groups by the circumstances, each having to fend for ourselves and no knowing where or how the others were. We were pelted by rocks and shot at, we escaped barely with our lives, my truck was burned to oblivion.
It was not the people at the gate who attacked us, it was a three wheeled motorcycle used for merchandise transport, which had been hijacked to carry eight armed men in the wagon, and these were followed by any number of others on motorcycles, all armed, who were responding to the message heard on the radio.
I credit the rosary for the fact that I was able to get six of us about a quarter mile away to relative safety, and we and the Polaris were unbelievably (especially since we were pursued by rock throwers and bullets) unscathed.
I left the five in safety. and tried to return for the other five, but it was not possible.
A motorcycle bandit from another gang was passing by, and I paid him to go the quarter mile to Drouillard and bring back news.
In a few minutes he was back.
“See that smoke?”
“That’s your truck burning.”
Then, we both heard rounds and rounds of gunfire.
I got sick to my stomach as I imagine Raphael, Cesar, Andre, Paschal and Renald full of bullets. A funeral is not supposed to produce a funeral.
I felt again in my pocket for the rosary.
In a minute, Andre called on the phone. He, Paschal and Renald had jumped a wall at the industrial park and were hiding, and needed me to come for them, which I did at once.
Now there were only two of us missing, Raphael and Cesar.
Andre told me that the gang next door (Cite Soleil Boston section) heard we were in trouble and came by the hundreds, shooting all the way, to help us.
When the perpetrators ran off on foot to jump walls, the gang leader called ti hougan (little voodoo priest) from Soleil Boston, blew a hole through the gas tanks of the 20 or so motorcycles, and threw a match on each as the precious and rare gasoline became the fuel for the destructive fire.
Within minutes, Raphael and Cesar appeared at “Trois Mains” where we were, on motorcycle. Raphael repeated Andre’s story, of how “ti hougan” saved the day.
While I appreciate the help ti hougan gave us, the rosary in my hand made it clear who it was that saved us, and there is nothing “little,” at all, about Him and Her.
During all the commotion, the same radio station publicly reported that they had confirmed with cemetery authorities that we have a twenty year history of burying the destitute dead at Drouillard and Titanyin, and that we were authorized to bury the bodies from the hospital on September 24.
They retracted the political interpretation. But it was too late.
Irresponsible journalism, such as radio emissions that contain false news (released without any verification), cause incredible harm to the fragile democracy in Haiti, and easily result in the loss of life and property.
Fake news is also a devastating weakening of strong democracies, like in the USA.
The privilege of being able to reach hundreds of thousands, or millions of people via the airways, has to be balanced by the highest obligations to responsible reporting. These obligations are summarized simply by the fact that what is reported must be true. It is that simple, and that hard.
It is simple because truth is truth. It is hard because, no matter what, not all true things should be spoken. There is so much to weigh in terms of justice, before speaking.
What is true to say and what is just to say, need to be molded by what is wise to say.
Individuals and organizations, churches and businesses, can suddenly be dangerously and irreversibly affected by false reporting, even in spite of years of respected humanitarian reputation.
As an American Citizen, a Catholic missionary priest, and a founding member of two large organizations serving in Haiti for 32 years, I attest to the fact that under the present circumstances, it is daily more difficult and dangerous for us all to do our work, and if our work, and that of many other missions and NGO's, becomes impossible, the consequences for those who count on us for employment, education, healthcare, spiritual evolution and human solidarity, will be nothing short of catastrophic.
I don’t write this to look for funds. I write this to try to save our humanity, sealed in God’s image.
Each of us needs to pledge in our lives to only speak what is truthful, non-partisan, non-manipulative. Truthful words, just words, wisely chosen, intended only to build up, correct, strengthen and affirm the human family.
We must hold media outlets accountable to do the same.
We all must hold ourselves to another very high standard: that we respond to the very worst of what we see and live through, with the very best of what is within us. Only this stops the deadly spread of hatred and revenge. We all need to do this, before it is too late.
I have always appreciated hearing the life experiences and lessons learned of other people, and I do my best to share mine.
With prayers for peace and good will in our troubled world, and confident in a future that God’s guidance can make real for us, I wish you God’s blessings and all good things.
To help support the NPH family and its services during this time of crisis, please contact your local NPH office at nph.org.
To learn more about the current social unrest and the impact on the NPH Haiti family, read the thoughts of our Director of Special Needs at NPH Haiti, Gena Heraty: “Happy 50th Birthday in Haiti”.
Fr. Richard Frechette
The Ethical & Medical Advisor of NPHI