As I write this, they’re still pulling bodies out of what used to be villages along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In May, a long period of heavy rain caused the Silie River, usually an inconspicuous trickle of water, to change into a roaring, ten-foot-tall tidal wave that one night swept ramshackle wooden shacks away like matchwood. Nobody knows how many died. For this area of frontier territory is remote, underdeveloped, and poor. It is also shrouded in a historic sense of tragedy.
The two countries sharing the island of Hispaniola have a long and tortured tradition of mistrust and antipathy, perceptively explained in Michèle Wucker’s book Why the Cocks Fight. Colonial rule, revolution, invasions, massacres, and a persistent feeling of cultural difference have alienated Haiti from the Dominican Republic and vice versa. Yet the two neighbours have also always needed each other — for trade and for the movement of people across the border.
Ever since the Americans built up the Dominican sugar industry in the 1920s, it is Haitian muscle that has kept the mills grinding and the cane cut. But a legacy of dependency on Haitian labour is matched by a stubborn ideology of racism, through which Dominicans are taught to despise the people who do the work that no self-respecting Dominican would do. This curse of prejudice is by no means universal, but it is widespread and occasionally lethal.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born US resident, sets her harrowing novel in the 1930s, a decade in which anti-Haitian feeling in the Dominican Republic reached new and dreadful levels. The Depression had adversely affected world sugar prices; the mills were losing money even with near-slave labour. And a particularly nasty dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, was in charge of the country, having bullied and bribed his way to the top after starting out as a plantation foreman and petty thief.
Trujillo, who many suspected had some Haitian ancestry, was phobic about migrants from the next-door country. His ranting speeches, delivered in a strangely high-pitched whine, were virulently racist. But nobody could have imagined what he really had in mind. Then in October 1937 he ordered the genocide of all Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.
The story of the ensuing massacre has been told many times, but rarely with as much terrible intensity as in this novel. We see events unfold through the eyes of Amabelle Désir, a young Haitian woman working as a servant to a young Dominican woman, Señora Valencia, whose husband is an officer in the Dominican military. The relationship between mistress and servant is close, Amabelle having lost her parents in a drowning accident when a child, and having been effectively adopted by the Dominican family.
Amabelle also has a lover, another Haitian named Sebastien, a cane-cutter who works in the nearby plantation and whom she meets in secret. Through these relationships, we gain a sense of how a Haitian community lived alongside its Dominican counterpart, separate yet overlapping, tolerated but viewed as inferior. A Haitian doctor ministers to Señora Valencia, there is a Haitian priest as well as a Dominican one in the parish. Not entirely without irony does Danticat name this imaginary place Alegría — Joy. Here Amabelle finds a sort of happiness, still haunted by her parents’ death, but comforted by her bond with Sebastien.
That such happiness is inevitably doomed is suggested not just by dark rumours of Generalísimo Trujillo’s intentions, but by two deaths, one the new-born son of Señora Valencia, the other a Haitian cane-cutter struck accidentally by a motor car. These events cast a growing shadow over Alegría, but more worrying are the insistent reports that Trujillo has decided to end “the Haitian problem” once and for all.
Like authentically lived history, subsequent developments are unclear and confusing. As Pico, Señora Valencia’s husband, sets off on some ominously imprecise military mission at the border, word spreads among the Haitian community that the feared massacre has begun. Some, who had lived for decades in harmony with Dominican neighbours, suddenly fear for their lives. Amabelle witnesses several cane-cutters being rounded up and driven away. The Haitian doctor Javier warns her that she must leave and go into hiding.
Separated in the confusion from Sebastien, Amabelle begins the long and perilous journey to the border, where, with other fleeing Haitians, she hopes to find safety. They see gruesome sights: a burnt-out village with lynched Haitians hanging from trees, a Dominican peasant casually driving a cart full of corpses. So it is that we get a sense of the full horror of the corte, the harvest, which took something in the region of 20,000 lives.
Amabelle is one of the survivors, but only after she and her companion Yves have been savagely beaten and humiliated in the border town of Dajabón. In one of the novel’s less plausible but dramatically effective moments, she realises that Trujillo is actually in the town as they arrive. Thus, amidst the darkness and terror of the surrounding killing fields, Dajabón has a grotesque, illuminated fiesta atmosphere as Trujillo preaches his message of hate. The attack they endure follows the pattern reported by many at the time. Challenged to say the Spanish word perejil — parsley — Haitians were supposedly unable to pronounce the rolling “r” and guttural “j”, thus betraying their foreign origins. For thousands, it seems, an inability to pronounce this innocuous word was effectively a death sentence.
The account of Amabelle’s ordeal and her slow and painful realisation that she will never see Sebastien again is both convincing and distressing. It is not surprising that Danticat has admitted she has come close to weeping when reading aloud from this novel. It would be hard not to be moved by such a tale of cruelty and pain. If there is any redeeming theme to which one might look for comfort, it is simply the resilience of the human spirit, exemplified by Amabelle’s determination to go on living and loving the lost Sebastien.
In a final symbolic scene, after a melancholic and inconclusive return many years later to Alegría, Amabelle bathes in the river at Dajabón, the scene not only of her own torture but of her parents’ death decades earlier. The water, known fittingly as the Massacre River, represents blood and tears, but perhaps also some sort of cleansing process:
I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow.
The novel closes on this gently elegiac note, with Amabelle finally resigned to her individual loss and the two tragedies that have determined her existence. But, more widely, there is no sense of closure, no indication that the massacre was ever properly investigated or its perpetrators punished. Trujillo, we know, went on running the Dominican Republic until he was assassinated in 1961. And Haitians, to this day, are the victims of violence and prejudice across the border.
But perhaps most eerily prescient in the wake of the natural disaster of May 2004 is Danticat’s evocation of the river that divides, physically and psychologically, the two countries. A river that again has become synonymous with suffering.