INGRID PERITZ interviews Haitian writer Jan J Dominique for Canada’s Globe and Mail about the impact of Duvalier’s return on Haitians on the Diaspora.
For legions of Haitian émigrés like her, Mr. Duvalier was more than a notorious figure from the history books. He was the flesh-and-blood despot whose regime left behind a trail of scarred and disrupted lives.
Now, expatriates like Ms. Dominique are stepping forward to offer first-hand accounts of the repression of the Duvalier regime in hopes of filing criminal complaints against the 59-year-old former dictator, who returned to Haiti on Sunday. In doing so, the vast Haitian diaspora spawned by the very brutality of the Duvalier years could turn into an international force in pushing to bring Mr. Duvalier to justice.
“I am alive and I want to bear witness in the name of all those who can’t,” said Ms. Dominique, who runs a small business with her husband in a shopping mall in suburban Pointe Claire. “I still have nightmares about what happened to me. But I have a duty.”
On Friday, a Haitian human-rights lawyer held a press conference in Montreal to urge other victims of the Duvalier regime to file complaints against the former dictator, and press for justice despite the chaotic state of Haiti’s institutions.
Across Montreal, home to one of the largest Haitian exile communities in North America, the sight of the haggard-faced Mr. Duvalier setting foot back in their homeland awoke passions. If they hadn’t felt the brunt of his rule personally, they had family members who did.
“A whole generation of young Haitian intellectuals wanted to do something for their country. He sacrificed them,” said Lisette Romulus, a retired Montreal nurse who fought for years to get her husband out of prison in the Jean-Claude Duvalier era, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. “To see him back in the country was an insult. Just talking about it stirs up terrible memories.”
Mr. Duvalier’s legacy is still so potent, and the situation in Haiti so volatile, that some émigrés contacted by a reporter were reluctant to speak publicly about their experiences, despite their Canadian citizenship and long years in Montreal.
Ms. Dominique feels she has no choice. Her father, the charismatic Jean Dominique, was a prominent anti-government journalist who operated Radio Haiti (assassinated in 2000 in Port-au-Prince, Mr. Dominique was the focus of a documentary by U.S. filmmaker Jonathan Demme called The Agronomist). Growing up under the regime of François Duvalier, Jean-Claude’s father, Ms. Dominique recalls how adults always spoke in hushed tones. Some simply disappeared.
She too became a journalist at Radio Haiti; in a country with soaring illiteracy, radio was the country’s most influential medium.
But in November, 1980, Ms. Dominique turned up at the station in central Port-au-Prince and found armed soldiers waiting for her. She was taken to prison, where she was interrogated and detained. Around her, she recognized numerous union leaders and human-rights figures.
Ms. Dominique was released, but others escaped into exile or were never seen again. It was only in 1986, when Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti for France, that Ms. Dominique was able to return to her padlocked radio station, frozen in time since the day six years earlier when she had been arrested.
Inside, the studios were smashed into a mess of broken microphones and ripped wires. She can’t forget the memory that whoever had done the damage also defecated on the floor.
“I guess it was their way of saying we were nothing,” she says.
Ms. Dominique’s stepmother, journalist and former UN spokeswoman Michèle Montas, is one of four people in Haiti to have filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Duvalier. Now Ms. Dominique is awaiting word about how she can add her testimony toward prosecuting the former Haitian president for crimes against humanity.
“I am against the death penalty. To me it’s not important to hang Duvalier,” Ms. Dominique said on Friday amid the tidy shops of the Plaza Pointe Claire, as she took time away from serving customers to recall the dark memories of the Duvalier years. “What’s important is that he be judged, recognizes his crimes, and ask for forgiveness. Because we can’t let impunity win.”