Widespread extrajudicial killings and other crimes against humanity have been all but wiped from Haiti’s historical memory. Will the son and grandson of two brutal dictators capitalize on this collective amnesia?
Nicolas Duvalier addressed a friendly crowd at the Ramada Inn in West Palm Beach, Florida, on November 10, 2018, where he appeared as a guest speaker in a dialogue on reconstruction in Haiti. The 35-year-old son of “Baby Doc” and grandson of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, together responsible for nearly three decades of authoritarian terror and brutal human rights abuses in Haiti up until 1986, offered views on the role of the diaspora in Haiti’s development to an audience of young Haitian Americans and nostalgic old Duvalierists. Most of them wanted to know if he will be running for president of Haiti in 2021. He acts like a candidate, but he dodged the question with a smile.
Among older generations, the idea of a Duvalier returning to power sparks widespread revulsion. François Duvalier murdered an estimated 30,000 people during his 14 years in power from 1957 to 1971 in a bloody campaign against alleged dissidents, and his son Jean-Claude also oversaw widespread torture and killings when he succeeded his father as “President for Life” for another 15 years. But three-quarters of Haiti’s population are too young to remember the dictatorship. Violence and staggering inequality have continued since the 1986 overthrow of Nicolas’ father, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Today, many Haitians are frustrated, discouraged, or angry. These could be good circumstances for the ambitions of a young Duvalier, especially because very few Haitians now understand what his grandfather’s regime was really like.
My husband Louis lost an uncle and five cousins to François Duvalier’s terror. Their names were chronicled nowhere until we traveled deep into the countryside to interview surviving family members and witnesses, wrote an article, and made a radio documentary about what happened to them. The experience underscored to me that there were many hidden stories from that dictatorship, and thousands of nameless victims. But even what is known about the 29 years of Duvalier rule is barely taught in Haitian schools.
I joined a local association called Devoir de Memoire Haiti (Duty of Remembrance Haiti), which works to keep memories alive and teach younger generations about Haiti’s dictatorial past and its legacy. I was doing research in southeast Haiti in preparation for a Devoir de Memoire Haiti commemoration when I met Zeïla Madombé, who had lost her father, her older sister, two aunts, 10 uncles, and 30 cousins in 1964.
Twenty members of the remote rural community of Mapou had gathered to meet us—me, Louis, and an old friend who is a local resident—under a great old kenep tree with large exposed snake-like roots in August 2015. It was encircled by rough plank benches and served as the village’s open-air meeting place. Children hung about, but most of the people assembled were older, from their 50s to their 80s. It was four o’clock, hot and humid, but pleasant enough under the shady tree.
We introduced ourselves and explained our research. “Who would like to go first?” I asked. Everyone turned toward Zeïla Madombé.
“Tell me what you remember of 1964,” I said.
She stood and placed her hands on her hips, summoning the horrors of the days following the execution of her father and uncles, when Duvalier’s henchmen had come to their home to round up the family members and lead them away to their deaths.
“We didn’t know what to say, we didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t complain, we couldn’t curse… Everyone told us, don’t you dare call out! But I let out a yell!” She paused. “And [then] my baby was born!”
Eight days later, when the tornado of arrests and executions had ebbed, local policeman Bébé Maître caught Zeïla, seeking her land and other possessions. The Madombé women and children had fled their homes when the men were taken, and Zeïla had been sleeping in the bush with her children and her mother. Bébé demanded that Zeïla turn over the titles to her father’s land. She refused.
“Bébé tied me around the waist with a rope and led me to Bodarie [a nearby town], the lash to my backside, squawking all along the road, ‘Duvalier is great! Long live Duvalier!’”
She explained how she managed to escape: the wife of the local militia chief took pity and cut her cords. But Bébé came back again, twice, and managed to confiscate the deeds, and then burned down the family’s houses. The women and children who had lived there fled to other areas or went into hiding.
In the summer of 1964, François Duvalier had been in power for nearly seven years. He had killed, imprisoned or forced his opponents into exile. Mistrustful of the army, he had created as a counterbalance a militia loyal to him alone, the Volunteers of National Security (VSN). It intersected and overlapped with the secret police corps known as the Tonton Macoutes, named after a mythical creature who kidnaps misbehaving children. That June, Duvalier declared himself President for Life.
It was the last straw for 29 young men who had formed the rebel guerrilla group Forces Armées Révolutionnaires d’Haïti (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Haiti, FARH). Some of its recruits had taken part in earlier efforts to overthrow the dictator—Fidel Castro’s successful guerrilla struggle in Cuba had encouraged Haiti’s opposition, though the FARH did not have a socialist or communist ideology.
The 29 rebels left by boat at night from a quiet spot on the Dominican coast, and on June 29, 1964, they dropped anchor off a beach in Belle Anse, located on Haiti’s southeast coast. Their arrival would set off the worst spate of reprisal killings and the largest single massacre of François Duvalier’s violent 1957-1971 presidency. Yet it is a massacre with no name, left out of history books, and never studied or documented. Testimonies from survivors help piece together some semblance of historical memory.
Zeïla had lived with her large extended family in a compound of seven thatched roof houses in the village of Mapou. Chickens and pigs ran in the yard, swept clean every morning. Children fetched water from the spring, and candles and oil lamps lit the nights. The nearest telephone was several hours away by mule or jeep. But the Madombés owned land, sent some of their children to school, and thought of themselves as not too badly off.
The family was not political. They were certainly not Duvalier opponents, as Zeïla recounted. Some younger members had even joined rural units of the Tonton Macoutes militia and taken part in annual compulsory pilgrimages to Port-au-Prince to cheer on the president. Yet by the end of July 1964, 45 members of the Madombé family had been executed and buried in mass graves in a ruthless campaign to root out one suspected Duvalier critic and exterminate his entire family line. Why?
When I met Zeïla in the summer of 2015, she was 85, although she couldn’t have told me that. “I don’t know when I was born,” she said, “but it was before President Vincent.” In Haiti, unschooled adults who never had a birth certificate often gauge their age by president. Sténio Vincent took office November 18, 1930, during the U.S. occupation that lasted until 1934.
After the local policeman Bébé burned down the family’s houses, Zeïla told us, she said to her mother, “I’m going to Belle Anse. I won’t wait here for them to come get me again, I’m going down to see the State.” Rural people in Haiti sometimes use one word, leta in Creole, l’État in French, the State, to signify anyone from the president to a local tax official or policeman, all of whom are seen as far above the ordinary man or woman.
Bébé was leta in a small way. But he reported to Lieutenant Louis Joseph, the military commander in Belle Anse, the county seat. More powerful still than Commander Louis, as he was known, was André Simon, a member of parliament or deputy, whom Duvalier had designated his special commissioner to the zone.
She prepared for her visit to the commander’s house. Her cousin Bertha’s house had been deserted but not destroyed, so Zeïla, wearing tattered rags, slipped in and took a dress from the cupboard. “I was good-looking. My hair was pretty, and I had a nice little body,” she winked. “I put on that little dress and went down to Belle Anse,” she said. “I got there before daylight and slept a little in the scrub until morning. Then I went toward the commander’s house.” This was a forbidden act: you could be shot for cheekiness. “Finally, I saw the door open a bit. I said, ‘Good morning sir.’”
“Wait a moment,” said the man. She stayed standing, eyes cast down. Eventually, he opened the door fully.
“Good morning. Please sir, could you please show me Commander Louis’ house?” she said, although she knew she was already there. “He looked blankly at me, took a basin of water and washed his face and underarms. Then he dried himself with a towel and went back inside again.”
Zeïla remained where she was. As she recounted her story to us, she asked, “since when do the poor speak up? The poor don’t approach.”
She continued recounting the events that day: A car pulled up and a light-skinned, middle-aged man got out, she told us. He went over to the house across the lane and sat down on the veranda. It was Deputy André Simon, Duvalier’s special commissioner to Belle Anse.
Eventually, she told us, Commander Louis strolled out and sat down next to Simon across the street. He shooed Zeïla away with a dismissive sound. But finally he said, “Miss! Who was it you were asking for?”
“Please sir, if you please, sir, can you show me the house of Commander Louis?’”
“I am Commander Louis,” he said.
“Oh, excuse me, sir!” she said.
She blurted out: “They came three times to arrest me, so I had to come to see you, and to see Deputy Simon.”
“I am the Deputy,” said the older man.
“Excuse me sir, greetings, greetings,” said Zeïla, and she went down on her knees.
“Don’t kneel down,” he said. “I’m not God. What happened to you?”
She said, “Honorable Leta, my Fathers, I have come to see you. Three times you came looking for me. I don’t want leta to bring me in so I borrowed this little dress. I left and I came to find you.”
The commander fingered a lock of her hair, twirling it between his fingers. “Look at a girl who’s asking for my house. Are you going to come live with me?” Zeïla remembers him saying.
“No, commander. It is misery that has brought me here. Every night I’m sleeping in the woods, the ants are eating my mother and my children,” Zeïla told them.
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“Since that thing that’s been going on, they say they’ll kill us all,” said Zeïla.
“Where are you from?” he inquired.
“I’m from behind Saint André church in Mapou.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Zeïla Madombé.”
At the mention of her family name, “He goes ‘Wooooou!’ Tears actually came into his eyes and he put his head into his hands. Neither of them said anything. Commander Louis was frozen. The deputy just sat there.”
Zeïla said, “Deputy sir, say whatever you want to say to me, good or bad.”
The deputy took a pen out of his pocket and a piece of paper from his briefcase: “Now tell me exactly what happened.”
“I started talking. He wrote, I talked, he wrote: ‘My father had seven horses. My father had nine cows, and I don’t remember how many calves. He had seven fighting cocks. He had goats and chickens. They tied me up and made me dance all the way to Bodarie. When I got back, they’d broken into my father’s house and taken every last deed my father had.’”
“Do you know the pieces of land?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “but I don’t know how to read.” And she told him about the land in Bois Tombé, in Kadomas, in St. Michel, in Pot de Chambre, in Ylore, in Kavri.
The deputy called over a small boy and told him to get her some food. He brought a dish and a soft drink with a straw in it. Zeïla put it under her chair. She was too afraid to eat.
Finally, Commander Louis looked at his watch and said, “It’s time to go.” The driver started the car and the two men climbed in. Zeïla sat there in the chair.
“Get in,” said the Commander. He picked up the uneaten dish of food and handed it to her.
“So there I was sitting squeezed in the back of the car,” she told us. “I had to pee so bad!” We laughed alongside her.
“They drove off,” she said, “and I was still thinking maybe they were going to take me to Thiotte and kill me where they had killed my father. But when we reached the Mapou crossroads, the Deputy gave me a piece of paper: ‘Give this to the police.’ He put a bit of money in my pocket, too, and the Commander said, ‘Take your lunch with you!’”
Zeïla went to the police station and handed over the paper, saying, “Give it to Policeman Bébé.” Then she ran off all the way back to her kids, through the banana fields, through the woods. “I grabbed the children and my mother and we went down in a ravine. We lit a little fire, made coffee and ate a little food.”
Two days later, Zeïla put Bertha’s dress back on and took the deputy’s money to go to market. She met an acquaintance: “Girl, you’re free!” he said. “The police are looking for you! They want to beg your forgiveness.”
Zeïla wasn’t fully convinced. “But then they sent a police aide to look for me, and he told me to report on Friday.”
That day, her mother, the children and all the rest of the remaining family came with her. They hid behind a big stand of bamboo near the police station. A table was being set up outside. A policeman climbed up on it and called out “Zeïla Madombé!” She stepped forward and mounted it, looking out over the big crowd that had gathered.
They told her to say what had happened to her. She talked all about how her father’s deeds and everything they owned had been taken. But when they asked her who was responsible, she said, “I don’t know. When they came to arrest me, I ran off.”
“If I had named Bébé and the others they would certainly have murdered me,” she explained.
The police left Zeïla alone after that, and they returned some of the stolen land to the family. But all of the men were gone; those few who had managed to escape changed their names, as did the women and children in Mapou and the entire region.
I heard other stories later of Deputy Simon’s mercurial justice. He would kill carelessly but intervene in favor of a poor man who had been cheated by an official. Sometimes he would have the official executed. In Zeïla’s case, his intervention helped spare her life, but only after Duvalier’s thugs had slaughtered 45 members of her family. Continue reading