By Jimmy Jean-Louis *
Jimmy Jean-Louis dans le film “ Toussaint Louverture”
After flying into Santo Domingo to attend the Dominican Global Film Festival, I was too close to home not to make a quick trip across the border to visit my mother and father in Haiti. After all, it is a mere 5-hour drive and I had a couple of days to spare before my flight to Los Angeles for my daughter's birthday. By all calculations, I had plenty of time to visit the folks and enjoy some rest and relaxation. What could possibly go wrong?
I drove from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince in less than five hours. Crossing the border into Haiti took a few minutes. Once in Haiti, I inquired about flights back, but to my dismay, there are no flights from Saturday morning through Sunday evening from Haiti to Santo Domingo.
I wasn't that concerned because in principle, it should take only five hours to drive back to SD. All I had to do was find someone willing to take an extra passenger. So after a brief visit, my mother packed up a small suitcase of my family's favorite local delicacy, cassava. If I were to return from Haiti without it, my kids would have sent me back! She also prepared a lunchbox of rice and beans, like only a mother could, and we said our goodbyes.
At 3PM on Saturday Nov 16th, I drove to the Dominican Republic border 'Jimani" to catch a 5PM bus into Santo Domingo City. Crossing the border was quite easy, but once on Dominican soil, I found myself in an unusual situation. I was immediately surrounded by a handful of people-some wanted to help me get the Dominican Visitor Pass, others wanted to help me exchange money, one wanted to check the contents of my small black suitcase.
After checking the bag full of cassava, the man whom I assumed was a Customs Agent decided that he would charge me to enter the country with the bag of cassava. During the next very confusing five minutes, with many people talking all at once, I was persuaded to change 100 U.S. dollars to pesos. It was hard to tell who was Haitian and who was Dominican; everyone spoke perfect Spanish. And it was only further into the journey that I came to appreciate how that distinction is often made, and the consequence of being Haitian in a hostile country.
The bus was due to depart in less than ten minutes. A motorbike taxi offered to drive me, for a bargain of 300 pesos, the five minutes to the bus stop. With my black bag between us, we drove off. The driver, a Haitian, decided to take the back roads just so police officers would not stop us to ask for a "contribution" to allow us to continue. By the time we got to the station, the bus had just left.
Now, I'm quite an optimistic guy, but I started to feel just a little paranoid. I'm stuck in Jimani, where I don't know anyone. I come to realize that the 10,000 pesos I exchanged at the border have disappeared. To this day, I am still baffled at how this happened. The chaos at the border, my missing money, this driver making me miss a bus a few minutes away have me imagining all kinds of possibilities. So when he offered me the solution of taking a mini bus going to Barahona, where I could catch a bus leaving at 9 pm to Santo Domingo City, I began to wonder if this was all a set up. Is the bus really going to the city? Am I going to get robbed and dumped in a ditch, extorted for the remaining $1,000 I have in my bag?
The minibus was quite empty, with only 6 passengers-the driver and his girlfriend, Miguel Angel, a composer from Spain,and a Haitian man and woman in their 20s. Everyone looked suspicious to me, but because I absolutely needed to get to Santo Domingo to catch my flight back to Los Angeles, I was ready to flirt with danger.
The drive was filled with tension. At one point a large truck pulled across our path, and other cars drove past, but our driver inexplicably stops. Is he waiting for friends to jump in and rob us? After much convincing, he sets off again. It begins to dawn on me why he is so on edge... having Haitian passengers is a liability.
Fifteen minutes into the ride, soldiers with guns and immigration agents stop us at a checkpoint. We are all asked to produce our papers. The agents, not satisfied with the identification of the two Haitian passengers decide to take them off the minibus for further questioning. The Haitian man speaks fluent Spanish but the girl doesn't speak at all; it appears she is deaf and mute. The interaction between the agents and the Haitians is hostile, to say the least. They are treated with suspicion and handled roughly. I am not sure how the soldiers were persuaded, but eventually the two Haitian passengers are allowed back on the bus. The girl looks traumatized.
An hour later we faced another checkpoint. By this time it is getting dark and the agents are sipping drinks, their guns drawn. Again the Haitians are taken off the bus and interrogated. The girl's demeanor begins to unravel. She is shaking but doesn't speak a word. I assume she has been through some kind of trauma, or lost a close relative. She is clearly disturbed. The agents and soldiers are all over her, insinuating that she's illegal, disregarding the fact that she just passed about six previous checkpoints.
My suspicion of the other passengers turns into concern. They are clearly just trying to get to their destination but are filled with fear, because at any point they can be arrested for being Haitian. I'm boiling inside because I feel the soldiers are completely disrespecting these two human beings. I'm also scared to raise my voice. Let's keep in mind that I had just recently seen the movie "12 Years a Slave" twice. I decide that silence is the best defense.
By the 11th checkpoint, the agents openly ask the minibus driver why he is carrying Haitians. They lecture him that he should always check their passports. The driver's response is that he is just a bus driver, and that his 2 passengers have already passed ten other checkpoints, so he doesn't believe there is a problem with them.
The agent replies "I will fine you if you continue to carry more Haitians". The agents don't care to hide their hostility. Miguel Angel and I are both shocked by the treatment the Haitians receive. This crackdown on Haitian migrants is reminiscent of the Parsley Massacre, where more than 20,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were executed.
By the time we arrive in Barahona, it is 9:15 pm, and of course the bus has departed. I am told the next available one will depart at 4am. The two Haitians, having arrived at their destination, relax a little. To my surprise, the woman begins to talk and joke. I am amazed and saddened to see the mental abuse they are willing to endure, probably on a daily basis, just to get by. Her silence was an act, a mask she wears to weather the abuse. Is she illegal? Is she legitimately working in Santo Domingo? Is she a Haitian born in Santo Domingo? Does she deserve the harassment she received, which at times seemed like a pastime for the agents?
My journey was far from over. Miguel Angel, like I, needed to be in the city by early morning. We discussed our options and came up with the idea of paying the driver a handsome fee to drive us the remaining 4 hours.
We settle in for what we hope is an uneventful journey, however before I get a chance to doze off, the bus swerves and tilts so far it feels as if we are going to tip over. Somehow, the driver sets us straight and brakes. The sound the floor of the bus makes scraping the tarmac is deafening. When we stop, it is only to realize that the floor of the bus is gone. We hurry to jump out of the bus only to be greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes. We still manage to push the bus off the road.
Miguel Angel and I decide to walk 2 hours in the dark to the next pueblo, rolling my suitcase full of cassava, stopping to refuel on mama's rice and beans. We finally catch a local bus at 5 am and make it to the city at 10 am, 18 hours after I set off from Port-au-Prince.
My adventures aside, and regardless of the political situation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I strongly encourage the Dominican government to address the issue of human rights. What is occurring is a travesty. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
Haitian Actor and Model
Best known for his role as The " Haitian " on the NBC television series Heroes.