Visitors strive for impact on Haiti violence


Nick Carroll of Gambrills expected violence.

When an elderly couple was kidnapped from a town in northwest Haiti, and the woman's body was found the next day in a culvert with her hands removed, her midsection hacked by a machete and her face smashed, Mr. Carroll wasn't surprised.

Neighbors said the couple's crime was refusing to sell their land to the neo-Duvalierist FRAP party.

Mr. Carroll, aged 70, was one of about 100 Americans who traveled to Haiti last month in an attempt to halt human rights abuses, as Haiti's military fights an international push to return exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

The project, tagged Cry for Justice, was sponsored by nine religious and human rights organizations. Participants came from 22 states, Canada, England and the Netherlands.

But the group's idealism couldn't really prevent violence, Mr. Carroll found; volunteers could only document abuses and hope to encourage villagers by their presence.

"I think it helped, depending on how much understanding there was on the part of the population about our intentions," says Mr. Carroll, who is retired. A Roman Catholic priest for 15 years, Mr. Carroll married a nun and worked for 20 years in civil rights enforcement with the U.S. Department of Education.

"Politically, I came back feeling less than optimistic after visiting with the U.S. embassy," he says. "I think the situation will continue to fester."

Jacki Coyle, a pastoral associate at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Glen Burnie who also went on the three-week trip, says Haitians told her the group "bought them time by our presence. They wouldn't be hurt while we were there."

However, respite was short-term: The day a peace delegation left one particular town in the south, a pro-Aristide villager's house was burned by the military, says Ms. Coyle, 42.

The peasants were wonderful, she says, gentle and friendly. But the country's violence and poverty shocked her.

At night, voodoo drums pounded for hours, and several nights, Ms. Coyle heard gun shots.

Peasants sat in the blazing sun all day long to sell one chicken, or two limes.

Doctors, working without electricity, treated 100 patients a day and read medical books by flashlight. Towns had no running water.

"It could have been a thousand years ago, watching the people spend most of the day going up and down from a river with buckets on their heads to cook and wash and clean with," Mr. Carroll says. "It was total Third World immersion. It made me realize it might do us good to live with much less."

In the rural town of Bassin Bleu, where the former clergyman spent most of his time, the telephone didn't work for five days. There was no newspaper, no radio.

"I'm not sure how much information the villagers were getting," either about the political situation or about his group's intentions, Mr. Carroll says.

If the activists couldn't save Haiti in a few days, however, they could at least "help some of these communities survive and earn a living," he says.

For example, in one Roman Catholic vocational school he visited, more than 100 young people were sitting in a large room for "sewing" courses.

The only problem was, there weren't any sewing machines.

"I asked where they were and was told they have one, but it's broken. And these are treadle machines. It costs $150 for one machine. If [Americans] got together and just helped buy machines, the Haitians would have some means of supporting themselves."

Ms. Coyle is sending English books and her watch to a teen-ager who begged her for help in learning English.

She's trying to set up an arrangement with her parish and St. Bernadette's in Severn to adopt as a twin parish St. George, a congregation she visited in the north of Haiti.

Now safe in Glen Burnie, Ms. Coyle dreams nights about the desperate people who asked her to " 'Please remember me.' People would say this, over and over. The needs are so overwhelming, I would get depressed if I didn't act. We need to do something."

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