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
week to make radio contact with Port-au-Prince. The sisters at the House
Good Shepherd let us use their equipment. Afterward, it was always pleasant
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
recommendation. Madame Ti Pa's eyes shone with hope when she showed me
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
to accept any more women into the project. Madame Ti Pa was one of many
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
of becoming deathly ill. We drank bottled water and spent more money on
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
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
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