IT is 2:00 a.m. and the 45 or so would-be refugees crammed
aboard the 17-foot wooden sailboat waiting to set off are arguing
over which of them should get out in order to lighten the
dangerously overloaded vessel.
The organizer gradually persuades eight people to go ashore -
those who have contributed little or nothing to a voyage costing an
average of $90 a person. The Grace-a-Dieu (Thank God) finally tacks
away into the night, still perilously low in the water.
Twenty-four hours later it limps back into its home port after
an encounter some 40 miles out to sea with a United States Coast
Guard cutter that refused to pick refugees up and just waited until
they turned back.
"The ship flashed a red light at us, but it stayed far away and
did not come any closer," says Iderica, a student from the Haitian
capital, Port-au-Prince. "We wanted to be picked up, but by then it
was too rough to approach the ship or go any further, so we had to
The incident highlights one more tragic twist in the refugee
exodus that started after elected President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide's military ouster on Sept. 30 and has soared in the past
few weeks to a total of more than 34,000.
None of the 1,000 or so refugees waiting this week to catch
boats in the handful of fishing villages along the shores of this
remote bay, 120 miles west of the capital, seemed to be aware of
the latest change in US policy.
Last Sunday, the Bush administration announced that all boat
people henceforth picked up by the US Coast Guard flotilla waiting
outside Haitian waters will be immediately repatriated.
In the past, they were first taken to the now overcrowded
processing center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where immigration
officials were admitting about a quarter of them to pursue
political asylum claims in the US, and repatriating the rest.
Refugees on Cayemite Bay reacted with disbelief when reporters
told them of the new policy, which has coincided with a new
military crackdown on dissent that left an estimated toll of 15
dead in the capital in the first three days of last week.
"It doesn't make any difference, I'm still going to go," says
Evans, a student from a Port-au-Prince secondary school where
soldiers beat and arrested suspected pro-Aristide activists on May
15. "I don't see how they can repatriate me if they are sincere."
About 10 sailboats of various sizes were expected to leave from
Cayemite Bay this week.
Many of those hoping to be aboard would probably have failed
screening in Guantanamo because their chief motive is to escape
unemployment and hunger that is being fueled by an international
embargo designed to press for Aristide's reinstatement.
But many others such as Ilsom, a former driver and bodyguard for
one of Aristide's leading political allies, Port-au-Prince Mayor
Evans Paul, seemed to have a strong case for political asylum. …