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MARTIN
 
A Haitian Operation
Adventure in Haiti (a long time ago)

Once upon a time, and this was ridiculously long ago, I thought I was a hardened tourist.  I'd done quite a bit of traveling and thought there were no more major surprises in my world travels.  I never imagined what would be in store for me when I stepped off the airplane at Port-au-Prince that sunny morning.  My intentions were the best. I'd come to Haiti as part of a construction team from my church to build a home for a pastor in Haiti. There was no hurry to get through the line at immigrations.  I was the last one in the line and could see some of my friends waiting for me as I handed my passport to the officer in immigrations. She smiled and went through the ritual of checking my papers.  It took a little longer than expected but I wasn't concerned. These were pre-computer days (like I said, ridiculously long ago) and I had traveled enough to know that delays were to be expected.

The customs officer excused herself and went to get her superior. Now that concerned me.  As I was escorted back to the inner rooms of customs, I had this fear that maybe that list I saw my name on was something other than a list of incoming tourists.  But I had no clue what was happening to me.

Clocks really tick slowly when life is out of your control and all you can do is wait.  I sat, trying to be very patient and polite, for an hour in a small back office of customs. Not speaking their language made it difficult to find out what the problem was concerning me.  Naturally, my imagination worked overtime. It was no comfort at all when the superior kept saying, "No problem.  No problem."  That's what they always say, but if there were "no problem," why was I in the middle of this problem?

Fortunately, the room I was put in had a glass door.  My group leader, Charles, eventually moseyed his way around the back offices of customs until he found me. He lived in Haiti before, spoke the language, and knew how to operate in the country.  Charles was determined to see what the problem was and how I could be helped.  After talking with the superior, he informed me that my name was in fact on a list -- a list of wanted criminals in the country.  They thought it was a case of two people with the same name. It was just a matter of paper work to clear up.  She said again, "No problem," and I thought, "What a problem!"

After an hour, two men finally came to see me. They didn't want to see Charles but that was okay with me.  At least I was getting some action taken to resolve this problem.  I didn't realize I was getting more action than I had bargained for!  These two men were plain - clothes policemen who ushered me out of the building. They whisked me away from the airport in an unmarked police car and took me to the largest prison in the country.  I knew I was in trouble because this prison was right behind the Presidential Palace.  There were no phone calls for help.  They didn't tell anyone that I was being taken from the airport.  I was just gone!  I thought this only happened in the movies or Argentina.

As we approached the prison, guards unlocked an iron gate, we drove through the entrance, and the gate was locked behind us.  We approached a second gate and again the door was locked behind us.  They did this three times!   I was in the very heart of the prison and tried desperately to remember how the guy in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS escaped from a Turkish prison.  I didn't see any way to escape so many guards with so many guns.  I wished I had read the book more carefully.

I was escorted into a small dark waiting room and motioned to sit on a wooden bench.  There was a guard in the room at the desk and another outside the room with a machine gun.  I wasn't going anywhere.  I sat and I sat. I sat until I just had to get up and stretch. 

The guard quickly growled something that I knew had to mean, "Sit down!"  He wasn't to be irritated.  I'd already seen him slam a lady to the wall and tell her to stand there with her nose to it.  I wasn't going to bother him.  I quickly sat down and for the next few hours watched the mice crawl around the room.  I knew if there were mice in this waiting room, there had to be rats in the prison cells.  It frightened me as the shadows crossed the wall and the sun went down.  I had no idea in the world where I'd be spending the night.

I knew my friends knew I was lost but would I really ever be found?  Eventually, two men with guns came after me.  I was escorted into the office of Colonel Pierre, the head of the prison.  Unfortunately, I'd read about this guy.  He tortured people in this very prison!  How was I going to be interrogated?  I didn't speak much French and he barely spoke English. Still, they managed to question me.  "Who are you?  Where are you from?  Why are you her in Haiti?  How long will you be here?  Where will you stay?  Was there anyone here to vouch for you?" 

Finally, I blurted out in my combination of French and Spanish, "You left my friend Charles at the airport.  He speaks your language and can answer all your questions.  Why don't you call him?"

It was as if a light suddenly turned on.  They thought that was a good idea.  Colonel Pierre called the airport immediately.  He then informed me that he had personally talked to Charles and sent a car to get him. 

It was a lie.

Hours earlier, as I was shuffled from the airport, a Haitian pastor who came to greet our group saw my unusual departure.  On a hunch, he thought I might be the person my group was waiting for.  He ran to Charles to describe me. And yes, I think this was a justified time for a panic attack. After he recovered, Charles contacted the U.S. Consulate.  As my interrogation continued in languages I couldn't speak, there was a knock at the door.  In walked Charles with a man from the Consulate.

Charles, a fast-talking storyteller, quickly started in on my defense. Even in my limited knowledge of the language, I could understand an elaborate "snow job" when one was told.  He informed Colonel Pierre that I'd been to Haiti before and had to return because I loved the country and the people so much.  So far so good.  He continued explaining that I personally had donated $5,000 for our building project in Haiti and if I had given that kind of money, they shouldn't be treating me like this. That was stretching the truth more than a little but I wasn't going to argue the point.  At the time it sounded really good to me.

Finally, after six very long hours, a snow job, and the help of the U.S. Consulate, I was released.  I wanted to leave the country but Charles said if I tried that, I would have been arrested again. Customs and the police would have been sure they had the right person after all.  I was there for three weeks. I managed to do quite well and avoid the police any more.  Well, that is until the bus wreck.

MARTIN
Copyright 2013 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.