Like Thousands of Haiti's Poor, Marie Casimir Dreams of a Better Life After Duvalier

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

On Feb. 7, only hours after Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier had fled Haiti for exile abroad, Marie Casimir, 29, anxiously searched the muck alongside the yard-wide sewage canal next to her shack. A worrisome, slender woman with an impish face, she knelt by the stagnant, gray sludge and searched the banks for a leaf or a tuft of grass—anything alive and green. Like thousands of others throughout the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, her neighbors in the squatters' settlement called Brooklyn were already shouting, "Vive la nouvelle Haiti! Vive la liberté!" and waving leafy branches, symbols of freedom and rebirth.

Unable to find even a twig, Marie Casimir plucked a piece of green plastic from the canal's fetid surface, shook it clean and raised it to the sky with both hands. Somewhere nearby a radio played church music, and Casimir began to sing along to a hymn she had learned as a child: "Eternal life is ours...ours without end."

Now, two days later, Casimir is wandering the narrow, muddy paths of Brooklyn, a maze of hovels that is home to perhaps 6,000 of Haiti's poorest. With quick, birdlike movements, she dangles a boy's white shirt from a wire hanger, shouting and gesturing to anyone that the fabric is fine cotton and the price, $5, is fair. Although the new government has postponed the pre-Lenten carnival that was to begin today, a mood of euphoria fills the crowds milling in Brooklyn's squalid main street. Children dart about, and young men and women talk openly, and often angrily, of revenge against the Duvalier family and their infamous secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. "Last week no one would have spoken the truth," Marie Casimir says excitedly. "They would have been dragged away and shot."

Nearby, alongside yet another sewage ditch, women in long skirts squat next to small piles of rice, lima beans, orange-colored pasta strands, papayas and clumps of green bananas. A woman in a flouncy red dress sashays by; a grinning teenage boy, dancing to someone else's radio, follows closely in her wake. "A pretty girl," says Casimir, stepping toward a gutted cinder-block structure. With one arm raised high, she waggles the shirt at a group of men leaning against the bright-green painted walls of the building. "Gentlemen," she pleads, "one of you must buy this shirt for your son." The men hardly notice her; they're too busy discussing the fate of the Tonton Macoute who had lived in the now-wrecked house. Like dozens of other Macoutes, he had been killed by a mob shortly after Duvalier's departure. The men say that his end was no worse than that of the political prisoners whose remains were dumped at Source Puante, a paupers' graveyard 20 minutes' drive north of the capital. Haitians who live near Source Puante say that until last week, police-driven trucks arrived every Wednesday and Saturday, unloaded bodies, and burned them with gasoline. Human remains litter the site.

"I have been lucky," says Casimir, still hawking her cotton shirt as she tiptoes alongside a ditch on the way to her shack. "The Macoutes have not touched any of my family. But my friend Jean Luc...his father was killed by them. When the old man's wife protested, they jailed her, too, but she went crazy and they let her go. I think she was also hungry, and that can make any of us crazy. But not like the Tonton Macoute they killed—with stones they killed him. That man was crazy with the devil."

Casimir sheepishly confesses that one of the "crazy" things she did the day Duvalier fled was to join with hundreds of other slum dwellers in ransacking a Catholic Relief Services warehouse. She got away with a 50-pound bag of bulgur wheat that she will use to feed her four children: Emma, 10, Islene, 6, Polene, 4, and Kedlene, 2. She also plans to sell some of the grain. Slightly embarrassed by her admission, she changes the subject by greeting neighbors along the labyrinthine trail back to her home. "Bonjour, Joseph," she says to a thin man wearing a Sunday-best, baby-blue T-shirt emblazoned with the words Club Med. She waves to another friend, Pirame, who is cutting a boy's hair. "Pirame is good with the scissors," says Casimir. "I am a good cook, but today I am no good at selling this shirt. After I feed my children, I will try again."

Streams of gray water course between the wood-and-scrap metal shacks. Joseph, she explains, worked briefly as a gardener at a big house in Pétionville, the elegant, nearby town where the richest Haitians live. Now, she says, Joseph wants to kill the rich and the Tonton Macoutes. "He told me he will knock on their doors, pull them out and kill them with his hands," she says. "Eight thousand of the rich. Yes, eight thousand will do."

Marie Casimir stops at the canal's bank of sludge. From where she stands, she can see the seawater leading out to the Golfe de la Gonâve, which in turn opens to the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. She was born in Gonâve, she says, and grew up with the smell of the sea. In the opposite direction, through the smoke of wood-stoked fires used for cooking, she can barely discern the clusters of new cement-block homes, built on a hillside, where many former squatters have gone to live. "I remember when the tourist ships would come and we could sell things to the Americans," she says. "Then I thought I could move out and up on the hill. But now we can't even fix the leaks in our roof. When it rains, we can't sleep because there's so much water on the floor. Like mud it is."

Casimir turns to enter her one-room shack, excusing herself so she can prepare a meal for her children, who cling to her loose dress. Her unemployed husband Jacques, 35, appears briefly at the door to greet her.

While she is busy inside, a neighbor, Jean Ruma, 22, stops by and explains in crisp, comfortable English that he used to be a catamaran operator for five years in Fort Lauderdale. A robust, friendly figure, he is not bitter that he returned to Haiti to visit his mother, then could not afford to leave. "I spent my money and then I couldn't find work to save up again," he says. "I was born here, but I want to go back to Florida for a better life. Maybe our situation will get better. No one knows. But it couldn't be as bad as before. My father was shot in 1970 for talking out, and my mother was in jail for 2½ years. So what can you say? Hell, man, I can't control my feelings when I think about those things." Ruma, now surrounded by a growing crowd of curious people eager to offer their opinions, says that Haitian poor are not afraid anymore. "We have tasted blood and we have tasted independence, and now there's no going back," he says. "We must have democracy. And America must help us. If we don't get help, God knows what will happen."

In the midday twilight of her shack, Marie Casimir coaxes a spoonful of bulgur cereal into the mouth of Polene, all the while breast-feeding Kedlene. Casimir, whose breasts are thin and drawn after years of nursing, admits that she doesn't know much about birth control. She says that she hopes her children will learn to read and write so that they will know about "things like not having babies" and how to live like "real people." She strokes her baby's belly and corrects herself. "I mean healthy people," she says. Then she reaches up in mock anger and bats the white shirt that dangles from a cord stretched across the room. "If they can sell shirts, I'll be happy."

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