Originally: Haiti Eyes
I have been working in Haiti — on and off — for 22 years, and it
seemed insane to me that, after all this time, I would die like
this, in one of the country’s violent moments. I somehow thought I
It was April of this year, and five of us had packed into a small
rental car and traveled north out of Port-au-Prince — heading to
a meeting of our nonprofit organization. Our attackers came out of
nowhere, four men dark in the sun through our grimy windshield,
half crouching and waving their hands and guns. They forced our
driver from the vehicle. I thought they wanted the car, so I
jumped out of the back seat. But they hit me in the head with the
butt of a gun and pushed me back in. Shouting and brandishing
their weapons, two of them jumped in the front, one on each side
of the woman sitting there. The other two shoved in back; one of
them sat on my lap and one crammed in next to me, his gun cocked
at my head. The car accelerated wildly, leaving our driver in the
road. The new driver ground the gears, banged us through potholes,
veering dangerously. The men screamed at one another, gasping for
breath and sweating.
My friend, squashed against the far door, looked catatonic. My
other friend began to pray. I told her: ”I can’t die. I have two
little boys!” I kept staring at the guns, old and worn with use.
The men shouted: ”Where is your money? What do you have?” I
could see the face of the man beside me. He was angry but also
scared. So I helped him get our bags, our jewelry and our money.
”There must be more!” yelled the angry driver. ”Women are
crafty!” They grabbed my breasts and ordered me to pull up my
skirt and groped me in search of hidden money. The driver swerved
down another gravel road, fishtailing. They were shouting —
arguing about where and how to execute us.
The strange thing was that I knew the men who were doing this. I
don’t mean that I knew them personally, but I knew all about them.
I’m a medical anthropologist, and I went to Haiti to help solve
the public health problems resulting from too many people in too
little space. I believed that family planning would help. I spent
10 years living and working with the masses in Cite Soleil — a
harsh, urban landfill in Port-au-Prince.
In many ways, I had watched the gunmen grow up. They used to be
hungry little boys. I watched them live through a decade of
atrocities: their fathers shot in broad daylight; corpses
littering their streets; their mothers beaten and raped with the
muzzles of guns. As men, sitting across from me, they would clench
their fists and tell me how otherwise decent human beings can do
such things. They talked about drugs and guns. Sometimes, if I
questioned too closely, they would turn their heads or bury their
faces in their hands, weeping.
These were the men who had helped make my understanding of health,
Haiti and the world a terribly complicated thing. From my first
day in Haiti, more than two decades ago, I knew that my experience
there would change my life. And it has. I tell everyone I have
Haiti eyes. I fell for the country’s intoxicating culture, its
intelligent and vibrant people — people determined to find their
place in the world. But over the years, I’ve watched Haiti turn;
I’ve watched hope become despair. I’ve realized that family
planning or even decent public health won’t heal the ills that
years of political instability, corruption, rebellion and poverty
have caused. The simple job I had envisioned had also turned — it
was no longer simple, and it was much more than a job.
In the car, the men kept on shouting, arguing, waving their guns.
I had visions of my boys, 7 and 5 years old. I looked at the
gunman next to me, but I couldn’t speak. I shook my head and
pleaded with my eyes as if to say: no, no, no.
Then, for some reason, he touched my arm and bent close: ”You’re
going to be all right.” He screamed in Haitian Creole for the
driver to stop. The agitated driver ignored him, but the man
yelled again: they’d got jewelry, lots of money, computers — we
were useless. And finally the driver slammed on the brakes. My
catatonic friend fell out of the car, and my praying friend jumped
over her. As I was pushing to get out, the man grabbed my arm
again, looked me in the eyes and said, ”Kouri, kouri pi vit ke
posib” (”Run, run as fast as you can”).
I have run, in a sense, all the way back home to Northern
California. Seemingly, I am safe. But I don’t feel that way. My
sleep is interrupted by nightmares; the gunman orders me to work
on public health projects in Haiti. And I keep thinking about what
he said: Run, run as fast as you can. I wonder now what I should
be running from: him, Haiti, my work? I’m not immune to Haiti’s
chaos anymore. It has engulfed me. In time, I will return, but for
now, my Haiti eyes need rest.
M. Catherine Maternowska is an assistant professor of obstetrics
and gynecology at the University of California at San Francisco.
She is the author of a book on Haiti and family planning, to be
published next year by Rutgers University Press.