Marilise was 18 years old in the fall of 1992 when she boarded a boat leaving Haiti. Her boyfriend, Franfrico, was with her. Maybe a third of the 70 passengers were heading out for reasons similar to Marilise's: The young women had left home, if they still had one, to escape attacks or harassment by police or armed gangs. It was about a year after the bloody military coup that had toppled newly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; it was also a time of violence and revenge-taking on all sides.
Most of Marilise's relatives were Tonton Macoutes, members or supporters of ex-dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier's murderous secret police, or of his son Jean-Claude, called "Baby Doc." The former died in 1971; the latter was forced out of power in 1986 and fled to France. Many Duvalier cronies, supporters, and armed thugs remained in Haiti, though, often facing retribution from the regime's numerous victims and enemies. Marilise's family thus was a natural target in the violent unrest unleashed by Baby Doc's ouster and the increasing breakdown of law and order in the years that followed. Her father, Josène, was a big, smiling man, a butcher by trade. Her mother, Solange, worked as a hotel maid. They had expediently allied themselves with the Duvalierists, less from political conviction than to help ensure their physical and economic security.
Shortly after Duvalier's downfall, Marilise and her family lost all their possessions when their house in Delmas, an economically diverse section of Port-au-Prince, was torched. She was 12 years old at the time and disappointed at not being able to retrieve her only toy, "my dolly." But at least they were alive, more than Marilise could say for several relatives and family friends whom she watched die by necklacing, the murder method first popularized in South Africa and later adopted in Haiti under the term "Pere Lebrun," named for the owner of a big Port-au-Prince tire store. "They put a tire on your neck, pour gas on your body, and set fire," Marilise elaborates in a sad monotone, as if reciting, her English strongly accented. "You keep talking. You can see yourself burning. You die like that. In 1987, some of my family started to get killed. Sometimes, I see [Pere Lebrun] four or five times in one day. My cousin died like that. If I stay, I get killed too."
Marilise is 27 years old now. In late September, she gave birth to her third child. She is tall and broad, with dark golden skin, wide-set, long-lashed eyes, and two gold teeth. She has a shy and obliging manner; when she is relating emotionally disturbing events, she cries. Yet there remains about Marilise a tough, almost threatening aspect. It's hard to tell how much of her personality is the product of the antidepressants she has been taking for the past several years.
Eleven months ago, Marilise was released from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome Detention Center in southern Miami-Dade County. After a year at Krome and almost two years in the Broward County Jail before that, she is making a fresh start. The past nine years have battered and broken her. She has survived nearly alone, having lost along the way most of her friends and immediate family; now, even her two older children are wards of the State of Florida. Marilise vows to write her autobiography someday so her kids can know the truth about her life. Except the truth about her is amorphous, as it is with millions of Haitians who have become other people outside their country. As it is with Haiti itself, a nation where good and evil can be indistinguishable and where truth easily deceives. A Kreyol proverb observes, "Dèyè mon gen mon"-- behind the mountain, another mountain. Thus, Marilise's story of degradation, poverty, and fear begins to reveal a person who in some ways has been an innocent victim all her life, except there's really no such thing. It's hardly inspirational. Perhaps it's allegorical, a story not too far removed from that of every other Haitian woman who ever came here on a boat, except in degrees of darkness. She tells it in a stream of consciousness, pouring out vignettes, then suddenly skipping to a different incident years removed. It sounds too awful to have happened, but so do too many stories from Haiti.
Back in the late 1980s, Marilise's parents didn't have the kind of money that would allow them to escape Haiti in style, to jet into exile as had Jean-Claude Duvalier and his free-spending wife, Michele. As long as the corrupt and repressive Duvalier regime was in place, the family at least enjoyed a measure of protection and privilege, but it was out of luck in the social and political chaos that followed. The post-Duvalier years leading up to the December 1990 election of Aristide as president have been dubbed the dechoukaj, from a Kreyol word meaning to uproot, smash, lay waste. Things got worse in some ways for the Duvalierists after Aristide took over and then seven months later was deposed in a coup. While paramilitary gangs hunted down and killed Aristide supporters, other pro-Aristide groups killed their opponents as well.