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December 11, 2004

Burying Water, Hiding Truth


by Kathy Kelly
Voices for Creative Nonviolence

In the summer of 1994, I was part of a four-person Christian Peacemaker Team dedicated to filing reports on human rights conditions in Jeremie, located in the southern finger of Haiti. When I arrived, I spent one day in Port au Prince, waiting to travel by ferry to the tiny coastal town of St. Helene. That day, eager to be Helpful Hannah, I joined some young girls to haul Hinckley Schmidt-size water containers, destined for a neighborhood center in Port au Prince's appalling Cite Soleil, across a ravine. My arms were trembling almost immediately. When we reached the cement ledge where the plastic water containers were lined up for vehicle transport, I dropped mine down with an exhausted hurrah and then watched in horror as it split. The girls flew into action trying to save some of the precious water. Si ou cache verite, ou enterre dlo – the Haitian proverb says that to hide the truth is like trying to bury water. The truth was gushing out. Throughout that summer, I watched women carry water, on their heads, walking miles uphill. One day, my friend Madame Ti Pa nearly fainted from the ordeal.

Madame Ti Pa struggled to support three children:  Natasha, 8, Petiarson, 2, and Patricia, 1. Natasha was an orphan whose parents were killed when the overcrowded Neptune ship capsized off Haiti's coastline. Madame Ti Pa found Natasha wandering tearfully in the street and took her into her home. Natasha was eligible for financial help to attend school, but Madame Ti Pa couldn't afford to buy her a uniform, socks and shoes. Nor did she have money to feed the children properly. The children appeared malnourished and  were often feverish. Even so, they sang, laughed and cuddled together, obviously responsive to Madame Ti Pa's animated spontaneity.

St. Helene's hilly roads were rocky and jagged, rough on wheels, shoes and bare feet. Beyond St. Helene, one path led to a smooth, paved road with attractive interlocking stones called adoken. Lined by gorgeous plants, trees and flowers, the road passed through the richest section of Jeremie.

Our Christian Peacemaker Team members hurried along this route two mornings each week to make radio contact with Port-au-Prince. The sisters at the House of the Good Shepherd let us use their equipment. Afterward, it was always pleasant to chat with the kindly sisters and to hear of progress at the cooperative farm they sponsored. Sixty-five families were supported by women who cultivated crops in fields next to the sisters' home.

One day, Madame Ti Pa asked me to go with her to talk to the sisters about joining the project. A woman in Port-au-Prince had written her a letter of recommendation. Madame Ti Pa's eyes shone with hope when she showed me the typed letter. Then, she asked for a bar of soap. She hadn't been able to wash clothes for weeks, soap having become a luxury.

Letter in hand, dressed in a clean skirt and top, Madame Ti Pa met me to walk up to the Good Shepherd House. When we reached the smooth road, Madame Ti Pa told me the story behind it. The adoken bricks were ordered by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to build a road through St. Helene, but the shipment was delayed and didn't arrive until after the coup d'etat. The bricks were then confiscated and used instead to cover the already paved road through the richest section of town. The people of St. Helene felt disappointed and cheated.

More disappointment was in store for Madame Ti Pa when we arrived at the Good Shepherd house. Sr. Angeline firmly told her that it was impossible for them to accept any more women into the project. Madame Ti Pa was one of many who had begged to join.

Walking back along the adoken road, Madame Ti Pa trembled with weakness. She hadn't eaten since the previous morning. I thought again of the attitude I'd heard macoutes express:  "The poor are too lazy and stupid to run the country. They just want to cheat and steal."  On that road, even the very stones would cry out. (Habakkuk 2: 9-11)

What could we say to people who had driven Haitians to raw despair?  Days later, I met a man reputed to have committed the worst crimes. He was accused of theft, torture, and murder, yet because he had a gun, he had power. He used this power against simple people who had nothing and craved little more than basic rights. Yet, I had to ask, did I come from a country that had more in common with him or with the people he persecuted?

A cold shiver ran through me when I recalled similar awareness of the power of water, the power of guns, and the grinding power of poverty encountered in Basra, Iraq, during the summer of 2000. Our small peace team, again four in number, wanted to settle into the poorest area of Iraq's southern port city to study Arabic and better understand conditions in a neighborhood blighted by the effects of economic sanctions and a dictatorship's abusive rule. Three of the first words I wanted to learn, in Arabic, were, "Don't do that!"  I wanted to shout the phrase at playful boys who, in the blasting heat, would cup their hands, dip into the sewage ditch running alongside the road, and pour water over their heads to cool off. By the end of the summer, my companions and I would sometimes clap our hands over our eyes and shout "OK, my turn," then pucker our lips as the boys poured water over our heads. The alternative was to pass out under the harsh sun as the temperature rose to 140 degrees.

Each morning, in the household where I stayed, Nadra, whose name means "exceptional," would rise at 4:00 a.m. to begin scrubbing every surface in the sparsely furnished home. Her next task would involve removing a stone, lowering an electric pump into the well below, and siphoning off some of the available tap water supply. Nadra was one of a very few people who could afford such a pump. Our team members didn't drink the pumped water, for fear of becoming deathly ill. We drank bottled water and spent more money on two days of bottled water for ourselves than Nadra's household spent for an entire month. So you can see the pecking order:  Americans get purified bottled water, an Iraqi family in the good graces of the regime could at least manage to pump somewhat sanitized water, and the poor would be the most vulnerable to water-borne diseases.

Again, memory takes me to a scene of painful conflict over water. I'm remembering a time when our friend Caoihme Butterly walked into the wretched remains of the Jenin Camp on the West Bank, in April 2002, carrying two heavy six-packs of bottled water. Immediately, small boys ran up to her, eager to greet her. "Caoihme, Caoihme!" they shouted. Caoihme is a tall woman. She towered over them, holding the valuable water. I watched her eyes fill with tears when the boys, in frustration, began to fight with each other as they reached up to grab her cargo, eager to bring a bottle home to their family.

I wonder how Natasha, the 8-year-old orphan whom I met in St. Helene, has fared. Is she an 18-year-old woman with luminous eyes and a gorgeous smile? Would she remember waiting outside her home, each morning, to run and greet me when I stepped out of mine? I hope she doesn't remember a morning when she was crouched on the ground and looked away when I called her name. I walked toward her, wondering if I had done something to hurt the child's feelings the previous day. Drawing closer, I could see tiny pebbles glistening on Natasha's lip. Natasha hadn't run to see me because Natasha was eating dirt.

"You can't bury water," said our Haitian friends. "And you can't bury truth." The British medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that upwards of 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war. Child malnutrition is escalating, and chronic outbreaks of such diseases as hepatitis and cholera occur regularly.

After 18 months of U.S. war and occupation, contaminated wells cause water borne diseases; rivers are so polluted that not even animals can safely drink from the rivers; the lack of electricity means food and medicine can't be preserved and water and sewage can't be treated. Because of chaos and corruption in the U.S. occupation, Iraqis remain in desperate need of jobs, services, and security.

A decade has passed since I first met children in Haiti. Next month, Voices in the Wilderness will mark a decade since we first declared our intent to become "criminals" by traveling to Iraq. Several of our members are returning from recent trips to Haiti with stories worse than mine. I hope the children we've met and all those who hunger and thirst for justice will teach us to tell the truth, nonviolently, and to never be so foolish as to think you can get anywhere by burying water. Many of the people in Haiti and Iraq have the truth but don't have the water. We have the water, but we don't have the truth.


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Kathy Kelly is co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness and a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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