I set a travel date of September 9th. Prices are better if you purchase tickets a few weeks out. But, then you don’t know what will be happening in the country on the day you travel. As always, I chose a date pretty much randomly.
As inflation continues to pummel the people of Haiti, general strikes have popped up. A general strike in Haiti is when “people” announce a date of no travel or business. It’s crazy. They are mad at “life” and the “government”, but they strike in a way that only disrupts innocent people trying to get by one day at a time.
A big general strike was announced for September 7th. Sometimes the announcement is bigger than the actual strike, as people pay no attention to it. This was not the case for September 7th. Across Haiti, roads were blocked and businesses shuttered. In my thinking, a strike on the 7th might mean the 9th is good for travel. That’s when we learned the strike would last three days. The “leaders” of the strike announced that on Saturday the 10th people could go about their business again, but for three days the country would shut down...by force. Individuals and groups across Haiti responded and roads were blocked.
Strikes are work-day events, sometimes. Groups of men will man the barricades beginning at 8:00 a.m. or so. By afternoon, they are letting some vehicles pass through. The evenings can be open...if you drive carefully through tight spaces. The next morning, if you go very early, you can drive through barricades (trees across the street, telephone poles knocked down, rocks, blocks, beds, vehicles, etc.) without much trouble. No one is there to enforce the blockade. As the sun gets warm, the men show up and the barriers come alive again.
In most cases, the drivers who arrive at a functioning roadblock will approach on foot and state their case. The men in charge will listen. You can tell they want to help the driver, but they have to “do their job” and block the road. A vehicle with a sick person will often get a pass...not always though. I heard of a man who lost his pregnant wife and child at a roadblock...waiting to get through. Arguments often ensue as individuals disagree on who should pass through.
The night before my flight out, my personal feeling led me to conclude I had about a 70% chance of not making it to the airport in Cayes for my Friday flights. I was prepared to not even try. Then, the driver (working for someone else) wrote to me and said he was taking off for Cayes at 5:30 am. I agreed to go with him. We made it to the highway and began encountering the debris from the day before. We drove through or around probably 20 small obstructions that had space for a vehicle to penetrate.
We continued, and I was feeling good about making it to Cayes. We were about ¾ of the way to the airport in Cayes when came upon the first real roadblock that was manned. About 7 vehicles were already lined up. Drivers were negotiating. Blockade leaders were arguing. One guy would drag a log into place. Another guy would drag it away. Motorcycles were coming and going through a tiny space. People of foot came through without any problem at all. (They would have to arrange transportation on the other side.)
We sat and wrestled with what to do. The vehicle was not going to go through. That was clear. I could cross on foot. WEC was with me. He arranged for J.J., a mutual friend (former student) who lives in Cayes to come and meet us on the other side of the barricade. As we debated and delayed, the early morning hours drifted by. Finally, I decided to walk with WEC and J.J. through the blockade. A white guy going through a blockade is noticed by everyone. Most people just watch you closely to see what you are doing. Some make comments. For many minutes I was ready to turn around. I decided to move ahead and trust the hearts of Haitians.
We walked without any issues past the blockade to J.J.’s motorcycle. We hopped on, and WEC went back to the vehicle. J.J. drove us through several roadblocks that had special provisions for cycles only. When angry roadblockers mentioned the “white guy”, J.J. said I was a doctor on the way to help people. I’m sure they didn’t believe it, but it gave enough of a pause for us to keep going.
Roadblocks are a chance for wannabe leaders to take the stage. That is my fear as a foreigner coming through a roadblock. Might you be an occasion for some thug to make a name for himself? Getting through a barricade requires a delicate balance of bravado, gentleness, jokes, and determination. Pushing too hard can attract undue attention. Backing away makes thugs twice as brave. Going about your business with a funny line in your pocket always loaded and ready to fire seems to be the best way to handle the tension.
Some places people helped us. Some places guys hassled us. One angry man demanded we not pass. He was holding a tiny Coca-cola bottle. When J.J. said we need to go through, he was upset. He attempted to smash the bottle on the pavement in front of J.J.’s front tire. Twice he tried. The tiny bottle didn’t break. He lifted it up and looked at it as if to say, “What in the world?” The atmosphere ticked a few degrees cooler at that moment. His attempt to make a violent statement turned into quiet giggles. We drove on through.
At one roadblock, I got off the cycle and helped two men push their cycle up a steep bank so that we could keep moving as well. At another roadblock, we received counsel to follow a path through gardens and come out on the other side of the roadblock. We did. We managed to not get lost, other than one jaunt into someone’s front yard.
After too many close calls, we finally arrived at the airport. Mine was an 8:45 flight. My telephone said it was now 8:49. When we entered the airport, the plane was taxiing away. Thankfully, I had scheduled an early flight. They booked me on the later flight without any charge or hassle. It was mostly empty, I’m sure due to the roadblocks.
God is faithful. I don’t feel nearly as comfortable moving around in Haiti as I did years ago. Some lines were crossed I think when the gang in Port held 17 missionaries for ransom.
I do have strong proof once more that Haitian people are in general compassionate and helpful to each other and especially to strangers. It only takes one person, though, to change the atmosphere. By God’s grace, I had a string of people close to me who made it all happen that day. And we were blessed by the compassion of rank strangers over and over.
I continue to feel called to minister in Haiti. People are leaving, escaping (if I may use the term) as often as possible. I used to discourage people from leaving. I don’t do that anymore. I do encourage people to pray and seek God’s plan. His is the best...by far.
Since I’ve been home, the bad news has continued. I remember that moment in the street when I decided to continue my plight to the airport. The decision surprised even me. But, had I turned around and gone home to change my ticket for a week later, I would be stuck in Haiti. The airport in Port is cancelling flights because staff cannot make it to the airport for work. That is a dramatic escalation. Another week of strikes has begun as well. The man “in charge” of Haiti since the assassination traveled to the USA, and then came back to Haiti. His first act was to raise gas prices. I can’t imagine a more inflammatory act.
Pray for Haitians. They are trapped in a situation that is dire. Hope is nearly gone. Young people are looking at tomorrow with only gloom. These are the times that try men’s souls, and help people to realize they NEED Jesus Christ. There is no other Way. There is no Hope outside of Him.
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Missionary in Haiti.