March 8, 2004 - The Guardian: Tourists and Peace Corps workers left my hotel in Haiti and were replaced by reporters and photographers

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Haiti: Feb, 2004: Peace Corps evacuates Volunteers from Haiti: March 8, 2004 - The Guardian: Tourists and Peace Corps workers left my hotel in Haiti and were replaced by reporters and photographers

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Tourists and Peace Corps workers left my hotel in Haiti and were replaced by reporters and photographers

Tourists and Peace Corps workers left my hotel in Haiti and were replaced by reporters and photographers

'My lift to rehearsal made a hasty U-turn as armed mobs closed in'

Brett Bailey went to Haiti to work on his play about the fall of a tyrant. He never expected to get caught up in the real thing ...

Monday March 8, 2004
The Guardian

A month ago, when the threat of war was just a rumour, I arrived in Haiti for a two-week stint to find a cast for the show I am writing and designing, Vodou Nation. Until September last year, when I made my first trip here to get a feel for the country, I had little idea of Haiti, aside from the stereotypes: poverty, tyranny, vodou. I started visiting because Jan Ryan, an English producer in love with the "vodou-rock" music of the Port-au-Prince band RAM, had decided that we would make a dynamic partnership in developing a stage show.

During the past months I have read a good deal about the island's culture, trying to make sense of this convoluted nation. I decided to tell an allegorical story of the rise and fall of a dictator (since Haiti has had its fair share of those), beginning with Christopher Columbus's arrival on the beach here in 1492, and ending more or less now, but with an image of transformation and hope.

Out of 60 hopefuls, mostly dancers, who turned up for the auditions, I selected seven to perform alongside the eight musicians of RAM. During the workshops - conducted with the aid of an interpreter, my Creole being limited to a few pleasantries - we worked on the dances and songs of the various vodou deities, doing improvisation exercises to free the mind and body. But as the shadow of civil war began to fall across the country, the contrast between the rehearsal room and the streets became startling. Angry red graffiti shouted from the walls. Time and again my lift to rehearsals made hasty U-turns as armed mobs moved towards us. Everywhere roads were cordoned off by concrete blocks, vehicle carcasses and rubble.

During the second week of my stay, all hell broke loose in the northern towns of Gonaives, Saint Marc and Cap Haitien, as various rebel factions rose up and slaughtered the stalwarts of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Tourists and Peace Corps workers left my hotel and were replaced by reporters and photographers. We gathered around the bar of the grand old Oloffson Hotel, on a hillside about a mile from the city centre, watching CNN footage of towns falling. Gunshots peppered the night sky.

I decided to extend my ticket by five days so as to visit more vodou temples and ghetto artists who fashion saintly icons out of junk, and to attend carnival in the sleepy town of Jacmel. Everywhere I went I aimed my digital camera at the crazy painted buses and the bright signage that adorns buildings and shops. I bought icons, dolls and sculptures to serve as models for the show's set and costumes.

I was supposed to return to Britain on February 25. But by that time, Haiti had erupted into violence. Aristide's slum-boy thugs, the Chimer, were manning roadblocks all over the city, robbing people at gunpoint. The airport was a bun-fight with people desperate to leave, bribes being offered to get to the front of the queue, American women weeping in frustration. Possessing a postdated ticket, I was sent from pillar to post, and in the end made my way back to the Oloffson while my aeroplane soared overhead. I'm still here.

During the US occupation of Haiti (1915-1935), the Oloffson Hotel served as a military hospital. My bedroom was the old surgery, decked out in green tiles and with a hole in the centre of the floor where the blood drained out. The room is named the Graham Greene Suite. The author stayed here while writing his novel The Comedians, set in this hotel during the bloody reign of Papa Doc and his Chimer, the Tonton Macoutes.

I never thought when I arrived here that I would witness drama with such relevance to the show I am creating. I have loved the romance of writing a play about this country in this suite, while a world gone haywire booms around me. The energy has been electrifying.

Last Saturday afternoon I joined the press on a tour of the smoking city. Down at the harbour warehouses, rampant looting had been going on all day. The wall of the compound had been broken and people were scurrying across the road with whatever they could carry: appliances, boxes, white sacks of grain or flour. Some men brandishing rifles and handguns gestured at us to go away. The air was bitter with the smoke of burning rubber and plastic. The body of a man, shot dead earlier, lay partly covered with cardboard. All Saturday night the city was apocalyptic with explosions and the baying of thousands of dogs. My mind was blank, I couldn't write. I felt numb.

Sunday, news broke that Aristide had left the country. The outraged Chimer were at large on the streets and terror chewed at the hotel. Where To go if they scaled the wall? Reporters stayed indoors, wide-eyed. Midday we watched helicopters landing at the palace and calm began to descend, though gunfire continued to crackle and black smoke billowed from the city square.

Late Sunday night we heard the heavy thrum of US cargo planes overhead. I accompanied journalists to the airport Monday morning where about 150 US Marines had taken control. They were here to restore the rule of law, they told us, until a UN team takes over. Later I witnessed the blazing arrival of Chamblain and Phillipe and their soldiers in 4x4 vehicles in the city centre. Jubilant people thronged the streets singing and dancing, throwing posters of Aristide on bonfires while white doves flocked overhead.

Sitting with a local writer in the Oloffson on Friday, I asked, where are the heavily armed rebel forces that overran the northern half of the country two weeks ago? "They are here, keeping a low profile, waiting for an opportunity to make a move," he replied. And Guy Phillipe, their young commander - is he a local hero? "He is like a frying pan when there is a fire," said my friend. "You grab it because it is the only thing available to beat out the flames, but you don't want to display it on the mantelpiece."

My performers were arriving for their first English lesson - to enable them to get by in England during their three-month tour beginning in June. Their smiling, eager faces brightened my spirits. In a country of so much pain and heaviness, what is needed more than anything is acknowledgement, investment and opportunity for growth. My conviction that Vodou Nation should be a celebration of the country's endurance and prolific creativity, and that it should end on a positive note, is stronger than ever.

· Vodou Nation opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, on June 1. Details: 0113-213 7700.

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Story Source: The Guardian

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Haiti; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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