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My Brave Haitian FamilyBefore and After Father's Execution
By Robert Monestime
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Robert Monestime
All right reserved.
Haiti, our native country, is an island located in the West Indies, having Cuba to the northwest, Jamaica to the southwest, and Puerto Rico to the east. The island is divided into two independent republics: the Republic of Haiti on the western side and the Dominican Republic on the eastern side. Haiti entails an area of approximately 27,700 square kilometers and has a population of about 8 million people. The country is divided into nine departments. Each department has forty-one districts, one hundred thirty-two communes. Its capital is Port-au-Prince. The official languages are French and Creole. It is an agricultural and industrial country. Catholicism, the dominant religion, was installed officially by the Concordat of 1860, the decree by which the Vatican re-established relations with Haiti following its independence from France in 1804.
Father's Unexpected Visit
In October 1962, some of the oldest children were sent to high school in Port-au-Prince from our hometown, Hinche. Hinche is one of the four districts in the Central Department. Throughout those five wonderful years in Port-au-Prince, we had frequent visits from our father, but the visit in May 1967 was one that would change our lives forever.
During the first week of May, our father showed up unexpectedly, arriving by taxi at the front gate. Our housekeeper, Marie, who was downstairs most of the time taking care of her chores, came up the stairs saying, "Guess who I brought you today?" Behind her was Father, carrying his briefcase. He was dressed in a suit, tie, and hat. His clothing wasn't unusual, although all the other times, he had been dressed casually or in his military uniform. What a surprise! This was a first as far as an unannounced visit, but we didn't realize the significance of it at the time. This time he came from Hinche, instead of Lascahobas, where he was stationed. We were so happy to see him that it didn't matter so much to us where he had come from.
Father was relaxed as he gave us lots of hugs and kisses on our foreheads and cheeks. He shared with us good news about Mother and the rest of the family. Frantz, the second oldest brother, wasn't home at the time, and Father was anxious to see him because he was the type of father who always liked to be around all his children.
Father hadn't said anything yet about the purpose of his visit. He looked around the apartment and walked downstairs and looked around some more. Marie, with her typical flair for being efficient, had already prepared him a fresh cup of coffee, which he was sipping. He walked back upstairs with his coffee with us in tow. He didn't mention anything about his post or the soldiers, or even my friend, Sergeant Bruni. Neither did it cross our minds to ask him about his maid, Merina, who always took good care of us when we were on vacation with him in Lascahobas. He waited for everyone to be together before talking about what was on his mind. This was to be a family meeting unlike any other.
Our First Date
A short time later, my girlfriend, Betty, came by for a visit. She said she was visiting my sister, Rose, but that didn't stop me from introducing her to my father, who was delighted to meet her. It wasn't the first time Father met one of my special friends. He had a way of making us comfortable talking to him about anything, like the good friend he was.
I don't remember exactly what started me telling him how I met Betty, but I remembered we were on the back balcony while Betty and Rose were looking at magazines at the dining room table. I explained to Father that she and Rose had met when we attended College Simon Bolivar. They were new students, and since we lived a short distance from the school, they walked home to either study or do homework, and they participated in other social activities together. At the end of the school year, the school moved from the corner of Chemin-des-Dale and Lalue to another building farther up on Lalue. We also moved, coincidently, from Chemin-des-Dale to an apartment on Rue Magny in Bois-Verna. Rose and Betty's friendship remained the same, even though we now lived farther away from the school and Betty's house.
Occasionally, when they needed assistance with math, I would help them. One day I asked my sister to ask Betty if she had a boyfriend, and that's how I learned she did not. She said she wasn't interested in having that type of relationship. She was a good student, and I assumed her studies kept her busy. Late one Saturday morning she came by to visit my sister on the way to the hair salon. She was very pretty and distinguished looking in her white, one-piece dress with light blue, red, and green vertical stripes. It reached down to just above her knees, and she also wore black mid-heeled shoes. While walking toward the front gate leading to the street, I couldn't resist watching her cautious steps as she moved down the sidewalk. She struck me as the prettiest woman I had ever seen. I said to myself it would be my greatest mistake not to ask her for a date. So I couldn't wait to see her again on Monday morning in school, to walk with her through the gate, to ask her out.
February 4 at 11:00 AM, we met at the schoolyard. She looked pretty as usual, with a new, captivating hairstyle. On the way home for lunch, I wrote on a page of my school notebook, "I love you and want to be with you forever. Please, use the same paper to send me your answer." Then I asked her to let me put the note inside her math book, and not to read it until she got home. My thinking was if her answer was no, at least the feeling of that sweet moment and the hope she would accept my proposal would last for a while. So I waited anxiously until the next school day for an answer.
Following the afternoon session of school I wouldn't see her because I had a late math class. The next day at the end of the morning school session, I became one of the luckiest young men in the world. She didn't write the answer on the page of my notebook, but in her own voice, straight from her heart, she told me, "I adore you also, and I want you to be the dream of my life." It was the high point of my life, and her words would stay with me always.
As I explained all of this to my father, he silently listened to me without interruption, but with a knowing smile on his lips. Watching my naïve facial expression, he reached over and hugged me firmly. Little did I know that would be my last conversation with him, the last time we would hug, and the last time I would see him. At that moment, we heard the sound of footsteps on the wooden stairs, indicating that Frantz had returned from school.
Frantz had not expected Father and was surprised to see him. Father was happy to see him in his white medical school lab coat. They embraced each other with joy. Father congratulated us for doing so well in school, mentioning to Frantz how beautiful my girlfriend was. Father apparently was in good humor. He spent sometime talking to Betty and Frantz while I walked downstairs to talk to Marie about lunch. But when I went back upstairs, Betty said that she couldn't stay, as she had an appointment. After saying goodbye to Father, I walked her out. She told me it was a great honor to have met him. He was easygoing and kind. At the gate, we kissed goodbye and I returned upstairs.
Chapter TwoTrouble in the Presidential Palace
During lunch, Father couldn't wait to tell us the reason for his visit. He started by saying, "My visit here is going to be short. I just want you to know that I received Captain Maxim's memo in Mirebalais, which included my military discharge papers from the general of the Army headquarters. It indicated that effective immediately, I had been discharged from the military 'for the good of the service,' et cetera, et cetera." He didn't bring the letter; he simply highlighted its most important contents. His earlier, pleasant demeanor changed as he explained this news to us. He sounded somewhat upset and impatient. We asked for the reason for his discharge, and in a frustrated tone, he retorted, "Simply for the good of the service!" The military seemed to have a certain formal and abrupt manner in its correspondence.
He then asked us, "What do you know?" "Have you heard anything?" and "Do you know what is going on?" I assumed that he was asking these questions because of what we might have heard was going on in the presidential palace. He wanted to get to the truth and understand what information we might have come across being that we were in the capital. Among us, Frantz actually knew from Probus, our father's cousin, who was an officer in the presidential palace, what had happened one night in April.
Frantz began to explain to Father what he had heard: Probus had duty that day and was with the president, who was dressing for his usual informal evening. He finished tucking in his shirt and took a seat before asking Probus to bring his shoes over to him. Probus was dressed in his military uniform with his .45 caliber automatic revolver at his hip, and ended the evening with a short dialogue with the president. Probus asked, "Excellence, is there anything else I can do for you before I leave?" The president replied that was all for the evening, and Probus bade him goodnight.
At home, Probus' family awaited his arrival and everything started out normal for a Saturday evening. There was an outdoor activity. He came home and greeted his family. He walked upstairs, followed by his wife, to change into his civilian clothes. He had not even reached the top step when the phone rang. It was someone calling from the palace asking him to return immediately at the request of the president. He said to his wife, "I just left the president. What could be going on?"
Upon his arrival at the palace he entered through the security gate. He noticed a number of private jitneys from all regions of the country on the grounds. A second lieutenant was already there and awaiting his arrival. He, along with three other soldiers, approached Probus, saluted, and introduced himself and the other soldiers. The officer said, "Captain, please get into the jitney. We are going to a destination that I cannot reveal to you at this time." The jitney was not local. It was from the North Cap-Haitian. The officer continued. "This is a direct order from the president." Probus noticed that there were other officers waiting in front of the other jitneys also. They seemed to be minding their own business, but at the same time monitoring one another's conversations. By all appearances they were about to go on a mission.
Standing outside the jitney, the seating arrangement was reviewed. One of the soldiers would sit in the driver's seat, the lieutenant and Probus would sit in the front, and the two other soldiers would sit farther in the back. Up to now, Probus didn't question the officer or the other soldiers. He was accustomed to this type of situation from his past experiences, in which he was in the position of the officer-in-charge. Probus said to the lieutenant, "I got a message and was on my way to see the president." Probus had interpreted the call as a request to meet with the president, but the officer said the purpose of the call was to have him accompany them to the as yet undisclosed destination.
Unaware of the trouble brewing around him, Probus got into the jitney. He was still in uniform and armed with his revolver at his hip. Still, neither the officer who ordered him into the jitney nor the others accompanying them informed him of his destination. It wasn't until the jitney passed through the palace gate that the officer finally was forthcoming. "Captain, we are on the way to the city of Les Cayes. Upon our arrival we will be meeting with the commandant of the district." Surprised, Probus said, "Les Cayes ... what for?" The officer answered, "We only received orders from the general to drive you to Les Cayes." It was then he realized that something wasn't right, but he didn't think it was anything concerning him.
Upon arriving, he was received by Captain Francois Sylvestre, the officer-in-charge of the district. The greeting was cordial between the two, being that they were from the same hometown and had served in the same district. Probus was informed that he was to remain at this post until further notice. Furthermore, he couldn't leave town without permission from the general. Unsure of what was going on, Probus remained calm. Even Captain Sylvestre didn't know what was happening. Not being prepared for his arrival in Les Cayes, he was allowed to call his anxious family, who had no idea of his whereabouts.
In that conversation, he told his wife that everything was all right. He informed her that he was with Captain Sylvestre in the city of Les Cayes, under direct orders from the president. He asked her to send for Frantz and to have him bring some underwear and clothes. Worried and scared, she did what was asked of her. Before going to see Probus, Frantz asked our cousin, Fritz, who was in town at the time from Thomazeau, to accompany him to Les Cayes. He explained to him the reason for the hasty trip. Fritz would never say no to Frantz under such circumstances, and he quickly prepared his truck for the trip.
They picked up the luggage from Probus' wife and left. It was approximately 10:00 AM Sunday when they arrived. They saw Probus and Captain Sylvestre, who they also knew from Hinche. They exchanged salutations and delivered the luggage from home to Probus. Probus and Captain Sylvestre trusted and respected each other, so the captain didn't think it necessary to check the luggage. Also, since the captain was unaware of Probus' reason for being there, he had no reason to be suspicious.
Over a cup of coffee, Probus told Frantz and Fritz about the events of the previous evening at the palace, in the presence of Captain Sylvestre. He said to them, "I swear that everything is fine between me and the president. I didn't do anything wrong." He then said, "I frankly believe that it is 'the father playing with his sons'." It seems that these presidential officers were so close to the president that they viewed him as a father. For his part, however, the president likely considered them simply as his best soldiers. After this explanation from Probus, and seeing his attitude toward the ordeal, Frantz and Fritz became less worried and were more at ease for their return trip home. Arriving late Sunday night in Port-au-Prince, they drove straight to Probus' wife to ease her anxiety with the news that her husband was okay and in the good company of Captain Sylvestre.
When Frantz finished recounting this incident to Father, he added that he had heard from a confidential source that the officers closest to the president were plotting a "coup-d'état" to overthrow him, and planned to have the president's son-in-law, Colonel Dominique, take his place.
"That is absurd!" said Father emphatically. Then he added, "Besides, what does that have to do with me?" I replied, "From what I heard, it is getting dangerous. President Duvalier is a terrible man. He could just create his own propaganda to allow him to retaliate any way he chooses. Maybe he wanted to make some changes in the palace, and that was how he decided to do it." Frantz said, "Father, before it's too late, you must leave the country." Father explained to us, "If I leave, everyone will think that these officers were actually involved in wrongdoing." He continued, "As a matter of fact, that kind of talk is very dangerous. I might have to send all of you back home before you get yourselves in trouble."
When Father talked about the other officers, he was referring to his cousins, Lieutenant Prévoir, who had also been transferred to the Gonaïves District from Ouanaminthe, and Lieutenant Frank, Probus' brother, who was kept at his post in Hinche instead of being discharged, as was the case with Father. Father concluded, "Now, I'm going back to Hinche so I can spend more time with your mother and the other children, and to see to the farm. After being in the military for so long, it feels strange to be a civilian again. It's going to take quite some time to readjust."
Probus was a lieutenant in the presidential guard at the palace. I remember when I used to live with his family as a student, before he was promoted to the rank of captain. At night they would send the children to bed early so they could wake up early the next morning and await their father's return from his nightly service. Once he got home, usually around 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, the boys would already be up. They were always happy to see their dad. He would pick them up and toss them in the air, and they would take it outside, bouncing and kicking the soccer ball on the ground and against the outside kitchen wall in the backyard, screaming and waking almost everyone in the house.
Excerpted from My Brave Haitian Family by Robert Monestime Copyright © 2012 by Robert Monestime. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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