Twenty years ago, at the age of 16, I found myself roaming the tiny republic of Haiti by myself.
I was the product of an ultraconservative upbringing and had already made several “evangelism trips” to one of the world’s poorest nations. Haitians needed “saving” by the bucket-load, I was convinced—despite the fact that the Haitian people are the most spiritually faithful people you could ever visit, no matter the unthinkably deplorable comments recently made by Pat Robertson in the wake of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake.
I had secured enough funds (by selling my baseball card collection) to get myself to Haiti and back during the break between my junior and senior years of high school. If I experienced any miracles that summer, it was probably convincing my parents that I had enough contacts in Haiti to be considered safe.
I hopped a plane to Miami and from there to Port-au-Prince, where I met up with a Haitian friend more than willing to serve as my Sancho Panzo evangelism translator. From there we took the nation by storm, roaming countryside villages and conducting evening evangelism tent meetings.
Two decades later, I look back on my dozen-plus teenage-year trips to Haiti with a desire to smile at my youthful naiveté—except that the pain of the Haitian people immediately wipes any such grin from my face.
During that Summer of ’89, I spent several days in City Soleil, regarded as one of the worst slums in the world. It stands in what was formerly ocean bay water; the ground itself is human refuse piled up over time. The conditions of City Soleil are unimaginable; describing them would turn your stomach. I will spare you the details; you and your lunch should be grateful.
While in City Soleil, I bumped into some representatives from one of Billy Graham’s evangelism organizations. They were handing out leather-bound Creole language Bibles. I asked how much it cost to produce each Bible; they replied around $50. I realized that $50 was roughly the per capita income of a City Soleil resident. I tried to imagine my parents being unemployed and receiving a Bible that cost roughly what the average American family earned in a single year–a book that, by itself, couldn’t be used to feed or clothe or educate.
I asked the missionaries what good such a Bible would do slum residents with an 80-90% illiteracy rate. They seemed puzzled by my question. Everyone can read the Bible.
Something clicked inside me that day. It was the germination of mature, critical thinking with respect to many things in life, but especially about the needs of the world’s poor. At that moment, I realized that I was the one who needed to be saved. Saved from thinking that I was some sort of super apostle, who, like so many outsiders to that humble island, can build Christ’s Kingdom overnight with an angelic wing and a prayer and a stentorian voice.
I now believe that the work of groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee is the exemplar of overseas Christian ministry. Christ’s message is best spread by building infrastructure and providing services rather than by Bible-thumping.
But all of that is just preface to my current question: Where in the world is Brunel Athis?
That same summer, during my experience in City Soleil, I stumbled upon a man named Brunel Athis. The life of Brunel Athis is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible human stories of the 20th century. But you’ve never heard of him—though he is very much deserving of the fame, say, of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel.
Below is a fictionalized version of my encounter with Brunel Athis. The events are described accurately.
Dante came upon a large, deserted facility that was guarded by several stern-faced military officers. He asked the guards what the buildings were, but they would not reply either to French or Creole. Finally, he asked a nearby peasant.
The man replied, “Dimanche.”
Dante could hardly believe it. “Really?”
The man nodded.
Dante was standing before the infamous Ft. Dimanche Prison, now defunct, but during the Duvalier regime, the Auschwitz of Haiti. He remarked to the peasant about a popular legend, that one day so many prisoners were killed the blood flowed to the sea. Dante noticed that the shore was several hundred yards away. The Haitian insisted the story was true. He beckoned Dante to follow him.
The peasant led Dante along a zigzag path through mounds of garbage to the back of the prison complex. The man shifted a discarded car door and uncovered a small hole in the chain link fence. He said his name was Brunel Athis. He had been a prisoner at Ft. Dimanche for seven years. He wished to take the blanc on a tour.
Dante was wary of the guards, but Brunel insisted they would not be seen. He had done this many times. If they were caught, they would simply be asked to leave. Soldiers were only posted to prevent people from stealing cinder blocks. The land was still government property. Dante considered this and consented. He followed the man inside.
Brunel entered the main building and showed Dante the cell where he and twenty other men had been confined. The windowless room was the size of a small moving van. It felt like a sauna. Brunel said the prisoners nicknamed it the Oven.
There were faded chalk lines along the floor, reminiscent of body outlines at a murder scene. Brunel explained that the chalk marked where individual prisoners were forced to sit without moving. Anyone who violated his chalk boundary was beaten.
Of course, Brunel shrugged, prisoners were beaten even if they stayed inside the lines. Brunel sat between one of the markers. He had spent seven years of his life in this spot. He moved his legs in and out of the lines. He laughed, “Go call the warden!”
Dante couldn’t understand how Brunel could joke about his experience.
“In seven years, I had eight-hundred ninety-three cellmates. I am a lucky man.”
Brunel showed Dante the ‘examination room.’ The torture instruments were long removed, but Dante’s guide graphically described the methods used to make one talk.
Dante winced through most of this. “And did you talk?”
Brunel smiled. “Always. I quoted many parol granmoun [Haitian proverbs] to them.”
He took Dante outside to the place where formal executions occurred. A nearby wall was pocked with bullet holes and hack marks. Brunel once watched guards behead a prisoner, then play soccer with the head.
Dante needed to say something—anything—after hearing that. “Where did they bury the bodies?”
Brunel led Dante by the hand to a large, covered well. He pointed down.
“They dumped them in a well?” Dante asked. “What about disease?”
Brunel quoted a Haitian proverb: “’There is a well at Dimanche, but it does not hold water.’”
He explained that sometimes the dead were also just thrown outside the prison bounds. Relatives considered themselves lucky to retrieve a loved one.
Dante asked Brunel why he had been arrested. Brunel replied that to this day he had no idea. He was not political. He was a poor, uneducated sandal vendor. A nobody. One day he was sitting at his booth, when a Macoute jumped out of a car and clubbed him over the head. When he awoke, he was naked and tied to a chair.
Dante was beside himself. “Seven years! How did you survive?”
“I promised myself I would not die until I made the warden laugh. He never did. After the coup, they broke my arms and released me.”
Brunel removed his shirt and proudly displayed the marks of his internment. Scars snaked across his entire torso. His back looked like it had been branded with model railroad tracks. Brunel pointed to several bullet wounds in his side. That was for trying to escape.
Dante asked Brunel if he lived in Cité Soleil. Brunel replied that, no, he owned a leather repair shop in Les Cayes. But he travelled to Ft. Dimanche every chance he could.
“Why?” Dante inquired.
Brunel pointed at Dante. “So people never forget.”
But they will, Brunel. They always do.
We forget wars and massacres. We forget pogroms and holocausts. We simply forget what we are capable of, until it is too late. The problem of evil is memory. We are doomed not to remember.
And then an earthquakes happens, and I am left wondering: Where in the world is Brunel Athis?
[I published this article for Columbia City Paper in the aftermath of the January 2010 Haitian earthquake. Meeting Brunel Athis was without a doubt a seminal life moment. Brunel, wherever you are, I continue to think of you.]