Town In Mourning Over Reported Sinking of Refugee Boat
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Port de Paix mourned Tuesday over the apparent sinking of a freighter that steamed off from the northern town in December, laden with refugees, authorities said.
″Everywhere the people are crying,″ Dr. Raoul Raphael said of the report that only eight survived the reported sinking in the Bahamas. ″They are holding wakes for many, many people.″
Raphael is the Health Ministry chief for Haiti’s impoverished northwest district, crushed by drought, deforestation and near-famine.
He spoke in a telephone interview from his office in Port de Paix, a rundown port of crumbling docks and old, rusty freighters that has been hard hit by a hemisphere-wide trade embargo against Haiti.
The embargo went into effect after the army ousted the country’s first freely elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in a September 1991 military coup.
Since then, tens of thousands of Haitians have fled in small boats bound for the United States, and thousands are believed to have drowned. The refugee wave virtually halted when President Bush ordered direct repatriation of boat people.
It was from Port de Paix that the 70-foot Vierge Miracle set out on Dec. 19, bound for Miami with 392 refugees aboard.
Relatives in Miami expected the vessel to show up about Christmas. When it didn’t, they notified the U.S. Coast Guard, which put out an alert and received word Friday that eight survivors - five men, two women and a child - were picked up by Cuban authorities on Dec. 23.
Cuba’s border force told the Coast Guard that, according to the survivors, ″on December 21 the vessel sank with the rest of the passengers in proximity of the Islands of Great Inagua in the Bahamas due to bad weather.″
The U.S. Coast Guard said it had no independent verification of the sinking.
Still, the weekend report stunned relatives in Miami’s Little Haiti, where the Haitian Refugee Center flooded with calls and visitors.
″My brother, 12-year-old niece, brother-in-law and two close cousins were on that boat,″ a sobbing Thaleus Ajean told the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun Sentinel. ″I just came here to find out who are the survivors.″
Port de Paix received the stunning news Monday night in short-wave radio broadcasts by the Voice of America’s Creole-language service.
The same Voice of America broadcasts carried an interview with Aristide, who urged other would-be refugees not to attempt the dangerous voyage but to stay home and work peacefully for his return.
″We encourage people to stay, resist and mobilize,″ Aristide said.
But he added: ″It is certain that so long as democracy does not return, we will not have a solution of the refugee problem.″
Washington fears a new exodus when President-elect Clinton takes office Jan. 20. Clinton says Haitians will be given more of a chance at political asylum, but says he will not allow a massive influx of refugees.
Raphael was skeptical that messages from Aristide or Clinton would discourage the boat people.
″There’s no work here. There’s nothing,″ he said. ″The people are desperate.″
Asked if news of the sinking might give would-be refugees pause, he said: ″I don’t believe so. It’s not the first time this has happened.″
Raphael blamed the refugee problem on the embargo, imposed by member states of the Organization of American States to try to force Aristide’s reinstatement. The military and a conservative elite fiercely oppose his return.
Aristide and his supporters have nonetheless called for stiffening the embargo.