'Even Fidel Castro wouldn't send us back to Haiti in these conditions'

MIAMI — MIAMI -- For 26-year-old Lema Dukens, democracy in Haiti meant bathrooms were installed in his town outside Cap Haitien and he could go to school to learn to read and write.

"When I saw these things happening," he said, "I felt like a whole human being. And I was not the only person transformed. Everybody was lifted up."


But democracy in Haiti, located just east of Cuba, lasted a short seven months. Last September, a military coup forced the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president, to flee the country. The reforms he had initiated were halted, and Mr. Dukens says those who demanded his return were persecuted by ruthless Tonton Macoutes.

"We came out onto the streets and clapped our hands and yelled, 'Macoutes, give us a chance,' " Mr. Dukens said. "But they shot their guns at us. We were like pheasants and they were the hunters. I was running away so fast that I fell and broke my leg."


Afraid to go home, Mr. Dukens got on a teetering fishing boat with more than 100 other Haitians and sailed toward the United States. When their boat was intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter three days later, the refugees cheered in relief.

But after 10-minute interviews with each adult on board, the United States decided that none was in danger of political persecution and returned them to Haiti.

"Even Fidel Castro wouldn't send us back to Haiti in these conditions," Mr. Dukens said.

As he limped back onto Haitian shores, Mr. Dukens remembers seeing dozens of photographers. Some were U.S. journalists, he said. Others were from the new Haitian government. A couple of JTC soldiers asked him where he lived. A few hours later, others arrested him.

"I didn't look them in the eyes because in Haiti you cannot look Macoutes in the eyes," he said. "But they took me to some building and they beat me. I received at least 15 lashes on the same side as my broken leg.

"I was silent. I would rather let them kill me than to ask for mercy."

Once again, Mr. Dukens would board a teetering fishing boat headed north. Once again, his boat would be found by the Coast Guard. And in an hourlong interview at Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba, he would flatly refute claims by the U.S. government that there was no persecution of Haitians who had been returned.

"This time they didn't want to," he said, "but the Americans let me in."