Baby Doc’s return to Haiti revives dark memories of Duvalier era

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Jean-Claude Duvalier’s unexpected return to Haiti after 25 years has awakened the ghosts of his repressive rule.

In the days since the former dictator known as Baby Doc landed here Jan. 16, Haitians have been debating his rule and reliving long-ago memories of death and survival. Suddenly, the brutal Duvalier era — including the reign of his father, Francois, or “Papa Doc” — has cast a pall over this land as if exhumed from a weed-covered grave.

Alix Fils-Aime is one of the survivors who have been recounting Duvalier-era experiences around dinner tables, in the news media and in the courts.


Fils-Aime, now president of Haiti’s National Commission on Disarmament, spent months in the notorious Fort Dimanche prison during the 1970s, after the younger Duvalier was named “president for life” when his father died.

He remembers the prison’s nightmarish conditions: teeming insects, overflowing toilets. Prisoners with skin diseases, diarrhea, pneumonia. Screams from the interrogation room.

When prisoners died, two or three each week, Fils-Aime could hear dogs just outside the prison “hauling and eating the flesh” after digging for bodies in shallow graves.

“That was Fort Dimanche,” he said.

Last week, Fils-Aime and three other Haitians filed formal legal complaints against Jean-Claude Duvalier, accusing him of crimes against humanity during his 15 years in power.

Fils-Aime said he was obliged to speak on behalf of “the thousands that cannot now speak because they are dead, tortured to death.”

Duvalier became president in 1971 at age 19 and fled in 1986 amid popular revolt. He had remained in exile in France before he arrived unannounced, emerging from the first-class cabin of an Air France flight.


A Haitian judge has said that he will decide whether Duvalier should be tried on charges of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds during his regime.

But human rights activists want Haitian authorities to prosecute the former ruler for alleged crimes against humanity. Tens of thousands of Haitians are believed to have been killed or disappeared during the Duvaliers’ back-to-back reign of terror, many at the hands of the thuggish, sunglass-wearing secret police called the Tonton Macoutes.

Amnesty International, which has pressed for prosecution of Duvalier, announced last week that it had given Haitian authorities 100 documents describing instances of detention without trial, systematic torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

Papa Doc seized power in 1957 and maintained an iron grip on Haitian society through the Tonton Macoutes, known for carrying out executions, arbitrary imprisonment and torture. The younger Duvalier retained the Macoutes under a new name: “Militia of National Security Volunteers.”

The death toll during the Duvaliers’ rule is estimated at 30,000.

Bobby Duval also remembers Fort Dimanche. In 1975, the then-22-year-old business administration graduate and avid soccer player spoke out — mildly, he says — against Baby Doc’s government. He suddenly found himself spending the next 17 months in hell.

“The torture was the starvation, the conditions,” said the 6-foot Duval, whose weight dropped to 90 pounds. “They tried to help you die.”


The Duvalier legacy plagues Haiti to this day, he said. “The brutality made people internalize fear, and it warped their minds,” Duval said. “The normal relationships of solidarity did not develop, and our first instincts are fear and distrust.”

Since Duvalier’s return, some Haitians have rushed gleefully into the streets of Port-au-Prince, still piled with rubble from the earthquake last year that killed more than 300,000 people.

“I love him, I hope he rebuilds the country,” beamed Elsie Pierre, 30, before dancing and waving as Duvalier’s motorcade passed by Tuesday.

Rights advocates say a large segment of Haitian society is too young to know better, to remember the worst of the Duvalier era.

“We haven’t had any education program in schools to inform and educate the population about Duvalier’s work and regime,” said Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights.

In his first public comments since returning, Duvalier last week did not apologize but said he feels “profound sadness” for anyone who believes “with justification” that they were harmed by his regime.


He also said he was not seeking political power amid a crisis sparked by fraud-riddled presidential elections in November. The country is also grappling with a cholera outbreak that has killed about 4,000 people since mid-October.

Esperance said some Haitians look favorably on Duvalier because of a lack of “any other alternative.” But confronting the past could help the nation move ahead by striking a blow against impunity, he said.

Any trial based on human rights charges could take months or years. But some Haitians old enough to have lived under the Duvaliers said it would be worth the trouble.

“If there is a way to bring justice, you should do so,” said Andre Zilien, a 57-year-old gardener. “It is with justice that a country works.”

Gaestel is a special correspondent.

Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City and Tracy Wilkinson in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.