It was my first day in Haiti when my translator and I were nearly kidnapped. If things had gone down differently that day, the two of us may have ended up tortured and held for ransom. Or maybe dragged out of our car and beaten.
Who knows, because it ended as best as it could for all -- except for the guy we hit with our car.
I thought a lot about that day while we worked on this week's cover story in New Times about a Haitian kidnapping. Things ended much worse in that incident. Thugs killed a federal agent and held a girl for ransom for several days while her family was told she had been tortured.
First, some explanation of how I found myself nearly kidnapped in the hills outside Port-au-Prince. I was in Haiti in June 2005 to write a story about Aaron Jackson, who, at the time, had just opened his first Haitian orphanage. Jackson was living at a homeless
shelter in Hollywood and paid for the orphanage with the money he made as a golf caddy. It was an incredible story, and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) had agreed to pay for my two-week trip to allow me to tell it.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince on a Monday, a day ahead of Jackson. ICFJ had paid for a fixer, someone who translates, drives, and generally sets up a foreign trip for a reporter. She asked me at the time to protect her identity in case an angry mob ever wants to track her down for what happened. So we'll call her Marie.
She showed up about an hour late to the airport, an unnerving start to the trip. The airport in Port-au-Prince may be the most unsettled place in the city. U.N. troops with machine guns stood on the roof. Taxi drivers tried desperately to take my bags. Beggars pulled on my clothes.
Finally, a very nervous Marie pulled up in a purple and very beat-up Geo Tracker. "Get in quick," she said. "It is not safe at the airport."
No kidding. She wasn't much on pleasantries. Instead, she began by explaining that the road from the airport is one of the most dangerous spots in the city. Snipers hang out on the rooftops. Gangs wait to kidnap foreigners. "You're a target," she warned. I was quickly learning that she wasn't one to sugarcoat.
Reluctantly, she agreed to give me a quick tour of the sites. We zoomed by the National Palace, a gleaming white building with two-story columns and domes on the roof. (Last year's earthquake reduced it to rubble.) A metal gate surrounded the palace, and hundreds of people appeared to be living on the sidewalk out front.
We stopped quickly at the Hotel Oloffson, a historic Victorian-style building. I had read about the Haitian bands that play at the hotel at night. "We won't be traveling at night on this trip," Marie warned.
To end our sightseeing, Marie drove south into the hills above the city. The road curved through Petionville, the city's best suburb, where mango and banyan trees created a shaded canopy across the two-lane drive. The road dead-ended at an overlook that provided a full vista of the city. Marie pointed out the slums of Cité Soleil, the parks filled with the homeless, the gleaming palace in the center, and the turquoise Caribbean to the west. It was stunning, but that dead end should have been a clue that the trip was a bad idea.
It happened about halfway back to the city. Marie had warmed up a bit, and we were chatting about how she ended up in Haiti. She grew up in Montreal but had decided two years earlier to come to her mother's homeland. Unrest had made the city a dangerous place. Friends had been kidnapped. Many with money had fled the city or the country entirely. She had been saving up to leave herself when I emailed her. This job may be her ticket back to Canada.
The air was cooler under the canopy of the trees, and I had my arm hanging out of the passenger-side window. With my head leaned out a bit to catch the breeze, I noticed a man dart from the woods. He was running full speed at our car.
I figured maybe he was trying to cross the street. It was a ridiculous thought, really, considering we hadn't seen a car since we started back down the road. He could've just waited until we passed by. We were going maybe 40 mph. But he wasn't trying to cross. He wanted to be hit.
He struck the Geo above the front wheel. He used his arms to catch himself from a full impact. I pulled my arm in just in time to watch him careen down the side of the car, bouncing off my door and then the back fender. I turned to watch him roll down the street, arm over arm, his head striking the pavement occasionally.
People came out of the woods immediately. They were on both sides of the car. There were maybe a dozen or more. I couldn't tell, but I think they were holding blunt objects, pieces of wood and things. A couple of them had an angle on the front of the car, and they would block our way in seconds.
Marie floored it. The Geo likely wasn't firing on all cylinders, so it was lucky we were pointed downhill. We got by the horde just before they descended on us. We missed striking a couple of them by inches.
Honestly, I had no idea what had just happened. I was still wondering if the guy was just trying to cross the road. I asked Marie if we should call the cops and report the accident. At the time, my biggest fear was whether we had just become wanted.
"First off," Marie explained, "we have to worry about vigilante justice." She explained that in Haiti, if a pedestrian is struck by a car, an angry mob may go to the driver's home and seek revenge.
But, she explained, that's probably not why all those people came out of the woods. "They saw you when we drove up. They saw a white guy, and they called their friends."
The thought was so foreign to me that it didn't sink in. It just felt like there had to be another reason for what happened. The next morning, Marie showed up to tell me she was quitting. "It's not worth it," she said. Before leaving, she warned: "You should go home. It's not safe for you here."
It seemed time to report what had happened. My handler at ICFJ, Patrick Butler, suggested I should probably be on the next flight home. But I hadn't seen Jackson's orphanage yet -- I hadn't done anything related to the story that brought me there. So I talked him into letting me stay for two more days.
I spent the time at Jackson's orphanage, an amazingly caring, warm place in the center of the city's chaos. I flew home Wednesday. I called my wife unexpectedly from the airport; I hadn't explained what happened so she wouldn't worry for the two days that I remained there.
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When we published the story about Jackson -- titled "Saint Aaron" -- I left out my near-kidnapping. Truth is, Jackson is the most benevolent and giving person I've ever met, and I didn't want my incident to overshadow any of his efforts.
But I couldn't help thinking about that day as we finalized this week's story. It occurred to me that things haven't changed much since I was there six years ago. People still get kidnapped regularly. They're tortured. They're bartered. And we ought to know about Haitian kidnappings that happen to regular people, tourists, and journalists who have no idea what's happening.
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