The Perils of Marilise

A child of a Tonton Macoute family escaped political violence in Haiti - and then her real troubles began

Marilise, the only daughter among her parents' six children, was indulged by her brothers, who tried to keep her away, as much as possible, from the spreading violence. By the fall of 1992, she had been out of school for a couple of years and sometimes worked as a nanny. She was in love with Franfrico, a former classmate who lived on the same block as her family. But the meager stability Marilise enjoyed ended one afternoon when, on her way home from a friend's house, "a lady told me don't go home because a bunch of soldiers had come into my house; some people broke the window, and they were looking for my brother to kill him."

Marilise ended up at the bus station, where, after sitting petrified on a bench for three hours, she caught the eye of a woman who camped out at the station most days to sell her homemade bread. "She see me sitting for so long, and she asked me what was I doing there," Marilise recalls. "I told her I can't go home, so the lady took me to St. Marc [a city southwest of Port-au-Prince], where she lived. She gave me food, and she told me about the boat going to Miami."

From St. Marc, Marilise called Franfrico to join her on the journey. The boat set out in late October 1992. The organizer of the voyage, according to Marilise, was the same Pere Lebrun of tire fame. It is doubtful this was really the man, though. A dozen knowledgeable sources, including a Lebrun in-law, say that the real Pere Lebrun is still in Haiti operating his tire business and that neither he nor his sons has ever been involved in running boat people to Miami. More likely, the leader of Marilise's expedition called himself by that famous name to disguise his true identity, a practice not unheard of among men involved in trafficking of one kind or another. Marilise, in fact, believes the boat captain "had done some very bad things in Haiti" and was escaping to save his life.

The stuffed animals in Marilise's home await the return of her daughters
Steve Satterwhite
The stuffed animals in Marilise's home await the return of her daughters
Marilise says sexual barter and broken promises dominated her stay at Krome Detention Center
Steve Satterwhite
Marilise says sexual barter and broken promises dominated her stay at Krome Detention Center

He did more bad things on the boat. Marilise has described the ordeal many times, but she invariably becomes agitated and her words begin to come out in bursts, scenes stumbling into one another in no particular order. She shrinks from talking about how "Pere Lebrun" and his group of about three or four other men wasted no time in helping themselves to the young women onboard. "Pere Lebrun," according to Marilise, "tried to get me and another girl." She is vague about what kind of sexual relations they might have had, but she clearly saw no possibility of refusing Lebrun's or anyone else's advances there in the middle of the Caribbean. Underlying her telling of this and later victimizations is an unarticulated acquiescence to an ancient principle that has infused most of the world's cultures and religions: That principle teaches girls and women to be in every way at the disposal of men. Even so, all the passengers were at the mercy of "Lebrun" to some degree. "I don't have no choice," Marilise insists, the monotone punctuated every now and then by a panicked staccato. "Because he be cursing us out, saying he's going to drop us into the water."

It did her boyfriend no good to resist, either. Marilise asserts Lebrun and his lieutenants resolved in their first few days at sea to offer a human sacrifice to the vodoun lwa, or deities, to ensure a safe trip "direk pou Miyami," direct to Miami. Two young men were selected. Franfrico was one, and Marilise says Lebrun's daughter's boyfriend was the other. Marilise wanted to intervene, but she did nothing. "I didn't have any power," she explains, almost pleading, repeating the statement a few times. "If I tried, I was going to die too. They threw him over, and he went under the boat, and nobody ever found him again. Then after [Lebrun] killed [Franfrico], he snatch my boyfriend's passport out of my hand, so no one would know what happened."

"That's not the story I heard," says a Haitian living in Miami who was told of the boat crossing but didn't want to speak about it for this article. "I thought what happened was she was having sex with the captain, and when the boyfriend found out, he started a fight and they beat him up and threw him off the boat. There wasn't no vodoun. There wasn't no Pere Lebrun."

But there was a voyage lasting 11 days that Marilise's boyfriend did not survive. After four days, the passengers ran out of water. They disembarked at one of the Bahamian islands, Marilise recounts, picked up some water and food, and continued on their way to Miami. They were fortunate to get past the Bahamas, where countless Haitian watercraft have run aground or been wrecked on sandbars and where thousands of Haitians have been detained and deported.

The harrowing voyage ended when the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted the boat off Miami Beach. The passengers were loaded onto a cutter and once on shore bused to "a big place. I don't know if it was Krome," Marilise remembers. "We could take a shower, and they gave us food. After that, they took us to [a refugee processing center]. We filled out a bunch of papers, and they took us and put us in a motel on Biscayne Boulevard." She had made it to South Florida, more or less direct, along with tens of thousands more Haitian and Cuban refugees who were part of a major wave of boaters and rafters arriving in 1991 and 1992.

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