"Even planting trees was political"

MCC in military-governed Haiti, 1987 to 1994

Lesreste Sidort started working for MCC in 1986.  He had grown up in Desarmes, Haiti and jumped at the opportunity to both to provide for his family and to grow professionally in his chosen field.

1986 also marked the year that the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) was overthrown. Jean-Claude and his father Francois (“Papa Doc”) had ruled Haiti for a combined 29 years characterized by rampant corruption, censorship and terror. When it was clear that the era of the Duvaliers was over, many Haitians believed freedom and democracy were finally within reach.

Within months, however, the new military leadership began a program of violent repression. The coming years of political upheaval would label MCC’s work as a political threat and lead to the arrest of MCC workers.

Lesreste Sidort started working for MCC in 1986. In 1992, he was arrested by local military leaders who falsely accused him of spreading anti-military material. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht 

“They thought the work we were doing was communist work”

It was during this unstable time Sidort began coordinating education groups in the Artibonite valley where MCC held agricultural trainings on environmental protection, soil conservation and seed storage.

The programs in the Desarmes office, where Sidort was based, have always involved organizing some of Haiti’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens for agricultural and community development. This work has never been explicitly political, but in this period of political instability working with the poor was viewed as a threat by those in power.

“It wasn’t easy,” Sidort says, “because they thought the work we were doing was communist work. We just wanted to organize people so they could have a better life for tomorrow.”

Soldiers started monitoring MCC meetings and watching MCC staff, fearing the work would lead to popular revolt. In 1987, just before what was to be Haiti’s first democratic election, a grain silo MCC had helped build near Desarmes was burned to the ground as part of a widespread military effort to suppress voter turnout.

Though the political situation was only going to get worse for both Haiti and the MCC team.

Tree distribution at an MCC-supported tree nursery in the community of Leje, in the mountains of Haiti’s Artibonite department. Tree nurseries and distributions, which have always been a central part of MCC’s work in the Artibonite, were seen as suspect by the military governments that ruled Haiti in the early 1990s. At times, MCC was accused of communist activities and even of using these tree distributions as a means of seizing land. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

“Even planting trees was a political act”

After a series of botched elections and coups, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in 1990, he was especially popular among Haiti’s poor and rural citizens.

Jean-Remy Azor, who started working with MCC’s agroforestry program in 1982, remembers the period after Aristide’s election as a time of hope for the country. But less than a year after his election another coup forced Aristide out of office and put the military back in control of the country.

Jean-Remy Azor started working for MCC in 1982, in his early twenties, and is now the program co-ordinator at MCC’s Desarmes office, where he oversees a staff of 14 people. MCC Photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

The repression and violence Haitians had experienced after the fall of Duvalier returned, even stronger than before. “They started attacking everyone who was doing work with the popular movement, development work, all work that was humanitarian or development work, work with the church, it was all the same to them,” says Azor. “Even planting trees was considered a political act!”

After Aristide’s ouster, it became almost impossible for MCC staff to hold meetings, and as a result agriculture and community development work slowed almost to a halt. Anyone suspected to be a supporter of Aristide, or of Aristide’s support base—the poor—was liable to be arrested.

“It seemed like even if you were thinking something in your heart, they controlled that,” says Azor.

“God sees what’s happening”

One evening in 1992, a tract accusing the local military leader of extortion and abuse was circulated in Desarmes. No one knew who had distributed it, but Sidort, as an MCC staff member and well-known community leader, was blamed.

“When they [the military] saw there were people protesting them, they thought it was me,” says Sidort. “But they didn’t care to know who it really was.”

The local military leader seized Sidort after an MCC meeting and took him to the police station in Desarmes, where he was placed in custody and beaten. While Sidort says he wasn’t afraid, secure in his knowledge that the accusations were false, American MCC service workers Ron and Carla Bluntschli remember feeling helpless and angry as their friend was taken away.

Ron, Carla, Laura, Leah, and Lisa Bluntschli in Haiti in 1993. Ron and Carla Bluntschli arrived in Haiti in 1985 to work with MCC’s programs in Desarmes. They worked with MCC for until 1994, and have now lived in Haiti for 33 years. MCC Photo/Howard Zehr

“It was quite upsetting, because we knew he was in the grips of violent men,” says Carla

“I shouted out, ‘God sees what’s happening in this country!’” Ron remembers. “I don’t know what good it did, but I was ready to take on the injustice.”

The next day, the Bluntschlis and Azor went together to the police station where Sidort was being held. After extended negotiations, they were able to secure his release, and brought him to Port-au-Prince to recover.

“If someone asks for water”

In 1994, Aristide was returned to power, and in 1995 he disbanded Haiti’s military. Aristide’s time in power remains a controversial subject but the elimination of the military is seen as positive by many Haitians.

After the military was disbanded, many former soldiers were forced into hiding, but as the chaos died down, many returned to their home communities. Sidort still lives in Desarmes, and occasionally sees the man who arrested him in 1992.

“I don’t think anything ill of him,” he says. “When I see him, we greet each other.”

Azor still works for MCC in Desarmes, where he is now the agroforestry coordinator. He, too, has forgiven the soldiers. He often sees a childhood acquaintance who was implicated in several violent events during the military era. Little by little, he and Azor began to greet each other, and then to talk, and even to eat together.

Azor’s wife, Gerda, owns a water store in Desarmes, and the former soldier can sometimes be seen there, talking politics or sharing jokes with whoever happens to be there.

“Sometimes he asks for water, and we give him water,” says Azor, “because in our culture, if someone asks for you water and you give it to them and they drink, that means you trust each other.”