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Duvalier Brutality Survivor Speaks

Haiti’s former “President for Life” Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprising return to Haiti on Sunday after 25 years in exile.  He stated that he hoped to take part in the “rebirth” of the nation, and aging friends said they had begged him to come back and visit.

But a simple Duvalierist reunion in the luxurious Karibe Hotel where he is lodged was not to be.  On Tuesday Haitian authorities brought him in for questioning on allegations of corruption and embezzlement.  On Wednesday four survivors of Duvalier-era brutality filed complaints of crimes against humanity.

Alix Fils-Aimé, the current president of the National Commission for Disarmament was among the group filing complaints.  He offered an extensive testimony of his experiences and opinions of the Duvalier regime and sudden return to Haiti.

Alix Fils-Aimé

January 19, 2011

The Duvalier regime in Haiti from 1957 to 1986 was a succession from father to son. That regime based its power on repression, crime, systematic violation of human rights, kidnapping, corruption, intimidation, and forced exile. It created an apparatus for corruption and strong repression.

There was a master plan of repression and the regime was advised by hired foreign advisers. At that time, there were alliances being made to counter Cuba because Castro had just declared Communism. Duvalier became an ally to combat communism in the region.  This was the time of the height of the Cold War.  So he pretty much got a blank check to do all that he was doing because he kept a tight lid on any [opposition] groups—though that very policy led a lean to the left, and radicalism.

Many young people and many intellectuals had to flee Haiti.  At one time we had more Haitian doctors in Canada than in Haiti, and teachers went to Europe, to Africa, to the United States.  There was a depletion of the nation and that sort of regime only stood with the brutality of the Tonton Macoutes, the secret police.

Thousands of people died in jail and were tortured.  Entire families were wiped out. And all institutions were at the bequest of the Duvalier regime and had to work towards consolidating their power—whether it was the army or any administration.

There was a transfer of power when Papa Doc died [in 1971]. At that time all of the political prisoners that Papa Doc had in jail were kept under a tighter lid because there was some uncertainty about the youth of the leadership and the cohesion of the clan.

It was only five or six years afterward that they began liberating prisoners under pressure from Jimmy Carter, when he came out with a human rights policy that changed radically US policy to be more humane and not tagged for war.  We began to see opening of human rights and democratic regimes which was also a good philosophical change in how we approached the millions, of poor, exploited people in Latin America that were exploding into radical guerrillas.  That was a smarter and more humane policy.  And history proved that it’s more concrete.  The proof is that we have no military dictatorship.  Also because of the struggles of the people [against dictatorship].

I was one of the political prisoners that was kidnapped in a small remote rural area where I was working, helping with the peasants, teaching them how to plant vegetables, irrigation, how to plant coffee, organize themselves into co-ops.

One night in April 1976 dozens of armed men fought to get a space to place a pistol or a machine gun to my head so that they could take me away to secret police headquarters in Port-au-Prince, where I was kept in solitary [confinement] for seven months, transferred to Fort Dimanche, brought back for another period until September 1977, the 25th of September 1977 when I was deported with 11 other former prisoners.

First I was in solitary [confinement], one and a half meters by two and a half meters.  So you are caged in, in a small cell, and you never come out and you are practically naked.  You don’t come out, they just put food in, close the door, take food out, that’s it. Sometimes you bathe, every three months if they felt like it. You had no toothbrush, no towel, no soap, etc.  And that was it.

There I was, there we were, at the headquarters of the secret police, and all the time you would hear them coming in with people and torturing them in the interrogation chamber, then dragging them to the toilet that was in the middle of this corridor that had the cells on both sides where they would do on themselves or they would be bleeding or they would be yelling. At times the guys who kept guard would abuse women that were detained.  And then at times, at three o’clock in the morning they would open the little latch in the iron door and they would ask you what your name was.  Well, you would ask yourself, what am I doing here if you don’t know my name? That was for seven months.

Then I was transferred to the infamous Fort Dimanche. There they started at 2:30 in the morning—of course your cell was always lit—and between all the crawling insects and the mosquitoes and the skin disease and the diarrhea and the pneumonia, you were hauled out at 2:30 in the morning into a place they called the bathroom. It was really an overflowing latrine with water just dripping down. You would be pushed with sticks to hurry because they had to, in half an hour, “bathe” all three hundred prisoners that were there.  And you had to stand in the cell until morning so it could dry so you could get a little sleep, because everybody brought back feces, pee pee, and whatever little water you could get on yourself.

Then they would give you a little tiny piece of bread that you could squeeze between your two fingers in the morning, with something they called coffee. Then at ten o’clock in the morning they would put metal buckets outside where the water they would be giving you at twelve o’clock noon would be warmed up and licked by goats and dogs. It became hot and they forced you to drink the water before you ate this hot porridge of corn meal.  Then at six o’clock before sunset they would give you a little bit of uncooked rice that you could gather in one hand and squeeze, and that was your dinner.  And at that time there also came the assault of millions of flies and all other insects that were just crawling into whatever little clothes you had.

The recipient you had in this overcrowded cell to use as a toilet was always leaking, so you always had it in your face and in your nose. They gave you a two-centimeter mat that you could sleep on, which was about the length of half your body. And once in a while, when naturally many of us died, two or three per week, what they did was simply put the body out the door and they just barely scratched the ground and threw it by the sea in Fort Dimanche where later on at night you could hear the dogs hauling and eating that flesh.  And that was Fort Dimanche.

If you dared ask for medicine, you could be beaten, but most likely severely crushed. Nobody knew you were there and you never saw a judge.  You could remember when you came in but you could never imagine when you would come out. Those that came to be tortured from Casernes Dessalines would come in with their behinds looking like big, plastic, overgrown flowers because they had a way to jack you up, to beat you with a stick.  I’ll spare you the rest.

I was not beaten but I was interrogated for hours, for almost half a day without food and water in an air-conditioned room where I had to stand barefoot while the cowards that were in front of me were wearing heavy sweaters.  I think they learned that in some school.

When Jimmy Carter came [to power] and was pressing for human rights they were forced to let us out.  But when I left my cell I left twelve other people in there that they killed right afterward because they claimed that they liberated all political prisoners.  The amount was 104 [released prisoners] but we left a lot of people still alive behind, who they killed right afterward and said that they did not know about those people.

And they put us in a plane, eleven of us and they gave us tickets to Amsterdam, Holland.  And we were supposed to go to Jamaica, Kingston and London, so when we arrived in Jamaica we decided to stay there and ask for political asylum and find our own way to where we wanted to go, because some had relatives in the US, in Canada, in France, etc.

My story is a single story and all the stories exist in the files of the library of congress, in CIA headquarters, in France, and everywhere. These are publicly known historical facts; the brutality, corruptness, and violating nature of that regime. What my account, together with the thousands that suffered-the thousands that cannot now speak because they are dead, tortured to death somehow-my story is part of that global violation of human rights that constitutes crimes against humanity. Lawyers here are arguing that after ten years you cannot prescribe, you cannot follow the suit.  But it’s far from the historic truth, the well known historic truth.

What this is about here is not a vendetta against Duvalier.  I am ready to pardon Duvalier.  But he must first recognize, as a human, that the way he acted towards other humans was wrong, towards other families was wrong, the way he ruled, the way he exercised the power he had gotten through repression and crime, and the wealth that he accumulated was by violating the rights of hundreds of thousands and millions of people.  Under that regime the degradation of the environment accelerated, and all our doctors and teachers went abroad, while they sent their children to university.  And I am friends with some of them now, and my grandchildren play with the grandchildren of hardcore Duvalierists, people that were with him.  And I have no quarrel with that.

But the question that is being put forward now is that we want no more of this.  Never again. And it’s not never again with the Duvalier regime or Duvalier-like regime.  It’s never again that we as Haitians should approach one another with that kind of attitude.  Because in reality, the measure of power and standing in rank in the world as we Homo sapiens have organized it is the measure of armies, of a capacity to destroy one another.  This is how we have organized what we call modern civilization. We went from the stone, to the bone and the arrow, to the firecracker and now to nuclear.  Its not when or if, but it’s how fast we can annihilate one another and entire nations and civilizations, or so called civilizations.  While it is true that violence is the engine of history, I think that man, Homo sapiens could exercise different options.

So I’m exercising my option to pardon Mr. Duvalier, but he must recognize and work for never again for the coming generations, so we can approach each other with the truth and be better human beings.  Can he do that?  Shall we, will others be able to forgive him?  I don’t know.  Is it hard? Humanly, yes.  But morally I think it’s correct.

This is the reality: Mr. Duvalier did not come here to be a political activist again—he came after 8 million dollars.  And he should be, I shouldn’t say ashamed, because I think it’s beyond that, I think the way his fabric is constructed, may be-I don’t want to lose faith-but may be beyond repair.  He came here because the Swiss told him that if he could prove that he has no legal problems with the government of Haiti regarding those funds, that he could spend three full open days, then he would get the money. So he bought a ticket for that amount of time because his lawyers here, hoping to get a fat fee from him, told him that after ten years there was nothing against him, that he could come in here and walk as if nothing had happened, spend his three days at the hotel, then go back and get his $8 million from which they will get their fee.  This is what it’s about here.  It’s immoral and they are trying to mix this with politics.  They are trying to mix this with other things.  This should stand on its own because it has ground of its own. And what they should not do is regret one day that they will not be able to look at their children, their wives, their grandchildren in the eyes, and tell them that they participated in trying to cover up and justify something that the whole world knows, has known.

Now the French ambassador, France.  Ten years ago I was told that Jean Claude Duvalier was able to skip and go elsewhere without the knowledge of the French security forces and the intelligence forces and organizations.  But now with the anti-terrorist tight lid that they have, in major industrial countries, in Europe and especially in France, this can never happen.  And we are astounded that that leadership continues to call itself a leadership that welcomes and defends human rights while they give, knowing all of this, which is in their archives, all the crimes and all the works of Duvalier, knowing this, they give him a permit to remain in France and to work in France if he so desires.  But since Mr. Duvalier doesn’t know how to do anything with his two hands, all he can do is pitifully come back here, glide here, and look at us all in the eyes, so that he can walk away with the money that they quote “earned” from us by killing, violating peoples human rights here.

This is an awful day for humanity if justice does not prevail. This would be an awful day.  Because its not only Haiti that is at stake here. We have all these other stories.  We have Bokassa in France, we have Idi Amin, we have all those corrupt millionaires, what about the Marcos in the Philippines?  So if that’s the standard, after the nuclear weapons and the big armies, if that’s the standard we want to be held to, I wonder what God they’re serving.  I wonder why some of those people hold first seats in the churches, in the temples, in the mosques. They don’t  deserve to be there and talk the words of the prophet, neither the word of Jesus, of Buddha, or of Mohamed.

I think that this is a cornerstone story not only for Haiti, but for humanity, for the whole world to ask itself the question of its behavior. I’m ready to forgive Jean-Claude, I’m ready to pardon him, but he must once in his life be a man and say “I was wrong, it was wrong.”

I will let our international partners judge in their conscience, I will let them judge.  But I will file in Haitian courts–I did file in Haitian courts–because this is where it happened.  But I know that the global village is here, so let’s define ourselves.

The treatment that’s been given to Jean-Claude Duvalier here now is much different, radically different, than the treatment that he afforded the Haitian people and those people he kidnapped and arrested and tortured and exiled and some of them raped, and we’re talking about entire families, children, grandmothers, wives, husbands sometimes.  It happened, this is recorded, but the treatment that is being given here is a civil treatment.  He’s at the hotel now, he can watch CNN, he can eat from the menu. He’s sleeping in the best hotel in Haiti now.  And I think that should be a lesson to him also.  Nobody’s trying to kill him, or assassinate him.  Nobody’s trying to violate his basic rights.  He went down with his battery of lawyers in his SUV.  And he’s still at the hotel.  That’s important to note, the difference of treatment.

Alix Fils-Aimé spent nine years in exile, before returning in 1986, at the time of the fall of the Duvalier regime.  He went into exile again in 1991 at the coup of Aristide.  After returning to Haiti in 1994 he served as an independent Congressman.  He is currently President of the National Commission for Disarmament.



Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

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