Couple recalls escape from Haiti during unrest
ADAMS, Mass. (AP) — An Adams couple that was stranded in Haiti last month amid political unrest in the country is back in the Berkshires after making a harrowing escape past armed gunmen and rioters.
Brenda Belizaire and her husband, Junior, had planned a two-week trip to visit his family in Deschapelles, a small town that is about 33 miles north of the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince. But due to violent demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, they had to extend that stay.
At the advice of friends and family, the couple delayed their trip from Deschapelles to the airport in Port-au-Prince and rescheduled their Feb. 5 flight for two weeks later. They waited for the violence to subside, but instead it continued.
Desperate for help, Brenda Belizaire contacted the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. An official at the embassy told her that Americans citizens weren’t being evacuated. She then called the consulate in Washington, D.C., and got the same answer.
On Feb. 14, the Department of State ordered the departure of nonemergency U.S. direct-hire government personnel and family members posted to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti.
The Belizaires decided they would have to get out of the country on their own. The same day as the state department order, the Belizaires boarded two motorbikes and began their trek five-hour to the capital.
Because Brenda, 43, is a white American woman and stood out among other travelers, her husband believed it was best to have her travel discreetly as possible. In heat that climbed above 90 degrees, she donned long pants, sweat shirts and large sunglasses for the ride.
“We left all our luggage; we brought nothing with us,” she said. “If you look like Americans, if you’re traveling like Americans it’s just an invitation to be robbed, to be hurt.”
“I was carrying my wife like a dead body. I felt so bad,” said Junior Belizaire, 45. “She is very brave.”
Every mile or so, they came across an illegal roadblock where heavily armed men in masks demanded money from them.
“They were actually threatening physical harm, wanting to take me or not let us through,” Brenda Belizaire said. “They’re robbing everyone. You either pay the money, you turn around or they’re going to take the money.”
The roadblocks have sprung up amid unrest in the country that stems from skyrocketing prices for basic goods and allegations of government corruption. While at first residents were simply blocking off main roads as a form of protest, as time passed and frustrations grew those roadblocks turned into illegal tolls where men began demanding money from anyone trying to pass, including locals, the couple explained.
The demands varied from $5 to $50 at each roadblock, but when the men spotted Brenda the price tended to go up, the Belizaires said.
″(Junior) was worried that I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid, I was angry,” Brenda Belizaire said. “I could support something that made sense. I am completely, 100 percent humanitarian and empathetic to people’s hardships. But the fact that they were taking advantage of a situation, thieves calling themselves rebels for the cause ... you’re just robbing your own people.”
Junior Belizaire, however, was afraid.
“Petrified,” he said, looking down at his kitchen table last week, with donated goods that the couple plans to ship to Haiti piled high around him.
During the trip to the airport, one of the motorbikes got a flat tire so the couple had to share one bike with a chauffeur for the rest of the trip. At times, when roadblocks appeared too dangerous, they got off their bike and traveled by foot off-road until they could be picked up again.
Locals assisted them, along with other Americans looking to get to the airport, in how to avoid dangerous routes, they said. When they finally arrived in Port-Au-Prince, they checked into a hotel that was heavily guarded with armed security. They flew home the following day.
It wasn’t until the couple arrived in New York City and made their way back to the Berkshires that they finally felt at ease. “I think the first time I could feel his relief is when we were on the train and we left Grand Central Station,” Belizaire said of her husband, choking back tears. “He grabbed my hand like super tight and he just had this look on his face like: OK, we’re on our way home.”
The couple said they remain disappointed with the lack of assistance they had while caught in hostility in Haiti. Between rescheduled flights, hotels, roadblock ransom and missed work, the stay cost several thousand dollars. Brenda is a registered nurse, while Junior works in health care at a Berkshire nursing home.
“There are Americans on the ground all over the world who are not safe. I think, myself included, that you have this kind of falsehood in your mind that we’re Americans, so no matter where we go, it’s OK,” Brenda Belizaire said. “Let me be the first to tell you, that is completely incorrect. We are not OK.”
The state department said it is limited in what it can do to help U.S. citizens who are trapped in the middle of a foreign crisis.
“The Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas,” said Marlo Cross-Durrant, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State. “We are generally unable to comment on individual cases, but the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince has been in contact with a number of U.S. citizens to provide whatever assistance possible under the difficult circumstances.”
U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince is open for emergency American Citizen Services only.
Crises abroad place a strain on embassy resources, making it difficult to assist with transport, according to the Department of State website.
“Security conditions can also limit our ability to move freely around the country,” a statement from the agency says. “It is almost impossible for the U.S. government to provide in-country transportation service to individuals or specific groups during a foreign crisis. You should therefore pay close heed to our travel and safety information for the country they are traveling to or residing in, monitor local conditions, and have a plan of action in case of emergency.”
An advisory from the state department warning Americans not to travel to Haiti remains in effect.
The couple has kept in contact with family in Haiti, including Junior’s two daughters, nearly every day since they returned. Some days are calmer than others, but hostility continues in some areas, they said.
The impoverished country has had spouts of violence in the past, especially since the 2010 earthquake, but the unrest over the last few months is unlike anything Junior Belizaire has experienced.
Still, he plans on returning for a visit in April, and Brenda will go back a few months later. They try to make three trips a year to visit family and bring donated food and supplies to communities.
“Haiti for the most part is a beautiful country. You’re in the Caribbean, there’s beautiful water. The people there are loving, they’re welcoming, they’re warm,” Brenda said. “But like anywhere else, obviously there are people who are not going to be accepting and there are places you’d consider not welcoming or uninviting.
Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, http://www.berkshireeagle.com