All Along the Massacre

Can a Haitian slum child become a diplomat?

Story by Ben Wolford


The big blue door was wide open one Friday morning in June 2015, and the raucous melodies of commerce rose from the people passing through it. They carried money in their pockets and goods in wheelbarrows and on their backs. The smells of mangos, motorbike exhaust and sweat hung in the tropical heat.

Locals passed freely across the bridge that spans the Massacre River. They call it the Friendship Bridge.

Passing freely is something you can’t always do because the Massacre is what keeps people in their place: Haitians to the west, Dominicans to the east. The Massacre is the line between hope or despair, jobs or hunger. To cross the river is to enter a new world. Depending on which side of the line you’re born, it can predict your future.

Ronaldo Louis was born on the Haitian side 14 years ago. The ideas in his head are bigger than those of most kids his age, no matter where in the world they’re stuck. Ronaldo wants to be a diplomat. His mom doesn’t even tell him he’s silly for thinking like that. In fact, in a way, he’s already training.

The Haitian border gates (Fran Afonso/CC BY 2.0)

That Friday morning he stood on the bridge selling cold sodas. Every Monday and Friday, the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic allow traders from each side to cross the bridge and mingle along Route Nationale 6 in the border towns of Ouanaminthe (pronounced like WAN-ah-mint) and Dajabón (da-ha-BONE). They sell plantains, avocados, soap, pots, clothing, eggs, linens, herbs and everything else the people here can make, grow or buy. Ronaldo was selling soda that day, but other days he sells SIM cards or both.

“Here’s a chip,” he’ll say to the people walking by. “I have Natcom and Digicel chips.”

He doesn’t get in their faces. If they don’t want it, he leaves them alone. Ronaldo is diplomatic like that. He understands supply and demand, and he monitors the value of the peso and the gourde. He also understands that Haitians have more power than they might think: As consumers, their money wields influence, he says.

The bridge is always jam-packed on market days. Motorbike taxis shuttle people to and fro, clogging the street. Truck drivers stuck in the fray honk horns until horns don’t mean anything. The commotion is dizzying. That Friday, a scuffle broke out. According to Ronaldo, a line of Dominican soldiers stood on the bridge, and a group of Haitian men charged the line. People were yelling. The soldiers drew their clubs.

The Massacre River near Dajabón and Ouanaminthe (Fran Afonso/CC BY 2.0)

Last summer, I drove to Dajabón, in the northwest of the Dominican Republic, and walked across the Friendship Bridge.

Beneath a tent on the other side, I interviewed Jules Ilin, one of the vice mayors, or “Third Mayor,” of Ouanaminthe. Ilin is 42 years old and dressed well, with a buttoned shirt tucked into blue jeans. He told me what happened the day the bi-national market erupted in brief chaos.

“The First Mayor was traveling to the Dominican Republic, and he witnessed some Dominican military abusing their power and hitting the people. They were using weapons, and some people were getting hurt,” Ilin said. “He realized that he needed to close the border to protect the people.”

The Dominican military and the border agency, which is part of the military, did not respond to my emails asking for their explanation of what happened that day. Ilin was not there; his information comes second hand. Media reports about the closure in Haiti and the Dominican Republic differed, and none mention beatings.

Only one Haitian blog, Haiti Libre, hints at abuses. It quotes Ouanaminthe Mayor Samuel Fidèle: “I am the mayor. If I see with my own eyes Dominicans mistreating Haitians, I have the right to stop all activities.”

But newspapers in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, said the Haitian Minister of Agriculture ordered closure to boycott Dominican goods. They even said Haitian authorities seized Dominican merchandise and tossed it into the Ouanaminthe landfill.

The papers said the market was closed all day; Ilin said it was closed for 15 minutes.

“When Haiti had military service, this never happened,” Ilin said. Haiti hasn’t had a national armed service in 20 years. “There was respect.”

Ronaldo was quiet all day, tossing a mango up and down, listening to my conversations. Then he spoke up. “Soldiers made a line and wouldn’t let them in and started beating them with sticks,” he said. I asked how he knows.

“I was selling sodas,” he said.

On March 16, 2001, a 20-year-old merchant named Elie Jean Baptiste woke up early. It was dawn on Friday, market day in Dajabón, and he had tennis shoes to sell.

Jean Baptiste could have waited until the big blue gates opened at 8 a.m. But by then many vendors would have already crossed over the dry riverbed, avoiding the bridge and paying Dominican soldiers 15-gourde bribes for early access to prime locations. Jean Baptiste only had 10 gourdes. It was worth a try.

When he got to the Massacre River, Haitian merchants were trudging through the muddy ravine and paying 15 gourdes. The soldier collecting the money was in no mood to haggle. Jean Baptiste offered 10 gourdes, but the soldier demanded 15.

“Thief,” Jean Baptiste said as he turned around.

The soldier aimed his gun and shot Jean Baptiste in the back. He died 30 minutes later. His sister later showed a Miami Herald reporter a photo of her brother’s body, with an exit wound under his left arm.

The incident could have been a turning point. The Dominican government apologized and paid for Jean Baptiste’s burial. Residents on both sides of the border gathered at the river and laid a wooden cross in the shallow water. Nothing changed. Eleven days later, a soldier killed a 28-year-old Haitian man as he fled a Dajabón jail.

The Massacre River earned its name in the 18th century after violence erupted between Spanish and French colonists there. In the early 19th century, newly independent Haitians swept across the island, killing thousands of whites, including women and children. In the 1930s, the Dominican dictator Rafaél Trujillo directed the slaughter of thousands of Haitians.

In May 2005, three Haitians broke into the home of a neighbor not far from Dajabón. They wanted to rob her and her husband, but they ended up killing her and wounding her husband. Public reaction was swift and typical: All the Haitians must get out.

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent live in the Dominican Republic. They go there because, statistically speaking, they could earn five times what they make at home. As in most countries in which destitute immigrants seek a better life, resentment runs deep. Even so, the “pogrom-like” civilian response to the murder was “unprecedented” in the country, according to City University of New York historian Edward Paulino.

In Hatillo Palma, where the crime took place, all the Haitians were driven from their homes. Angry mobs gathered. Near the southern border, scores of young men wearing hoods and waving clubs went searching for Haitians. The Dominican government stepped in, pledging to protect Haitians — by deporting them. Parents were torn from their children. Three thousand people were expelled.

“When I was in third grade I looked it up in the dictionary, and it said a diplomat is someone who represents his country in another country. But I’ve been told that it’s only the people who are rich and that have means that can do that. Because my parents aren’t rich, I don’t think I can be a diplomat.”

Ronaldo Louis (Ben Wolford)

Ronaldo told me this in Cite Don, the dusty slum in Ouanaminthe where he lives in a 100-square-foot room with his mother. Their home is wooden and covered by rusty, corrugated metal.

He reconsidered.

“I wouldn’t say no because you never know in life,” he said. “Sometimes your luck changes.”

Have you ever met someone whose luck changed?

“I knew this guy who was selling stoves in the market for 10 gourdes. When this government came, he found a job as Martelly’s security guard.” Michel Martelly is the president of Haiti. The man is one of the guards, at least. And Ronaldo clarified: “I didn’t know him personally.”

Ronaldo is a small kid with short hair and straight white teeth. He tucks his T-shirt into his blue jeans and answered questions like he’s used to being asked. He relaxed into the chair and flipped his hands as he spoke. Sometimes, if he didn’t have something interesting to say about the questions I asked, he simply said whatever he wanted.

His 50-year-old mother, Benita Louis, sells mangos. The day I met her she hadn’t sold anything for several days. She has two kids, “but I don’t know where the other one is,” she said. Ronaldo’s adult sister isn’t in Haiti. Neither is his father, probably. “I don’t know anything about him,” Benita said. “I’m the one raising him.”

Do you know Ronaldo wants to be a diplomat?

“Whatever he chooses, that’s what he will be,” she said. “But if it’s something that I have to pay for, I don’t have any money.”

A massive earthquake centered near Port-au-Prince in January 2010 killed as many as 300,000 people. As the disaster unfolded, thousands of refugees headed for the Dominican Republic, which suspended deportations.

Soon after, the Dominican Republic enacted a new constitution that restricted citizenship to people with one parent who has legal status. Before, almost anyone born on Dominican soil was a citizen. In September 2013, the Constitutional Court backdated this restriction to 1929, potentially rendering stateless hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the ruling.

In November 2013, the government created pathways to citizenship for those affected by the Constitutional Court’s ruling and to residency for Haitian migrants. But the process is cumbersome and expensive. By February, fewer than 9,000 had begun the process toward naturalization. More than 250,000 migrants applied for residency, but only 10,000 had met the difficult requirements as of June.

In February 2015, a mob burned a Haitian flag in Santiago, the Dominican Republic’s second city. Later that week, a Haitian teen who’d apparently won $130 in a lottery was found beaten and hanging from a tree in a park. On March 4, 2015, the Dominican government said it was closing its consulates in Haiti after a Haitian mob swarmed the embassy in Port-au-Prince and burned a Dominican flag.

Despite fears of mass deportations, none have happened. But those fears have caused thousands of migrants to flee on their own. Between deportations and voluntary departures, as many as 84,000 Haitians may have been forced from the Dominican Republic since June 2015. Even as the border crossing at Ouanaminthe closed on that market day in June, local media reported that truckloads of Haitians were allowed to return home.

Ronaldo recently started eighth grade. If he ever becomes a diplomat, he said he wants to be sent to the Dominican Republic.

Ronaldo Louis, right, and his friends in Cite Don. (Ben Wolford)

Ben Wolford is the editor of Latterly magazine.

Edited by Jackie Valley.

Source notes: The story of Elie Jean Baptiste is compiled from reports by the Haiti Support Network and the Miami Herald. The story of the 2005 murder in Hatillo Palma and its aftermath is in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention. Information about the June 29 closure of the Dajabón market is from newspapers including Hoy and Listin Diario. Background information about the current deportation program can be found at the website of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.