Saint-Roch, Aquin and Saut-Mathurine (Haiti)
From our special correspondent
“But are you still here?” After everything you’ve been through? “, launches the policeman at an intersection. At the wheel of his pick-up, father Michel Briand does not let himself be taken aback, his response bursts out. “But where would you like me to be?” To the sky ? ” Still there ? And even more than ever there. Nothing seems to stop the priest in his mission in Haiti. No more the three weeks of detention of which he was the victim last April, kidnapped by a criminal group, in this country where more than a thousand kidnappings have been recorded since the beginning of the year 2021, than the pick-pocketing which l left, a few years ago, with two bullets in the stomach in the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince. The idea of coming back to live in France has never “Crossed the mind”, he slips.
Medium-length gray hair, slender figure and thin-rimmed glasses, the missionary does not seem to let himself be stopped by any obstacle to be close to Haitians, all the more so in these days leading up to Christmas. Despite the insecurity which has only grown in recent months in the country, he did not hesitate to come and pick us up at Port-au-Prince airport, the main gateway to this country which shares a half of an island with the Dominican Republic, anxious to make better known the fate of this population to which it is attached for nearly thirty years.
To reach Saint-Roch, the parish of the French, the route from the airport goes through Martissant. But any passage through the area is strongly discouraged. Two rival gangs clash with heavy weapons, and whoever engages there risks being caught in the crossfire, when he is not arrested to be robbed at best. Of course, Father Briand knows about it.
The situation in Martissant is also omnipresent in the conversations of Haitians and the whole of Haitian territory formally advised against by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to all those who wish to go there. So, rather than taking the forbidden road, the pick-up engages through the roads of Port-au-Prince to move towards the heights. A detour that more than doubles a trip that should normally only take an hour.
After a journey on rugged tracks, the arrival in the small town of Saint-Roch offers a glimpse of the entire bay of Port-au-Prince. The view could be picture-postcard with its turquoise waters, if the tranquility was not disturbed by the detonations coming from Martissant. However, rather than stay put, the priest proposes to continue the road towards the south of Haiti, to visit the populations hard hit by an earthquake on August 14th. For Father Briand, this trip is also a pilgrimage to the first places of his so special relationship with Haiti.
In the 1970s, preferring cooperation to military service “So as not to have to carry weapons”, he was sent to the south of the country. ” Before leaving, he confides, I couldn’t even locate Haiti on a map. “ During this service he falls ” lover ” of the place. “I was really taken to the heart by this artist, player, joker, full of joy to be and to live”, insists the native Rennais. But also a people “Victim of its history”. There, the vocation to the priesthood was strengthened and back in France, he turned to the priests of Saint-Jacques, to be sent back to the island, as a missionary. He returned there in 1986, still in the south. Thirty-five years later, Father Briand is the last French missionary of Saint-Jacques still active in Haiti.
“Father Michel! Father Michel! “ In the town of Aquin, the first stage of our journey, the presence of the priest was marked. Everywhere, he is called to greet him, to ask him for news since his kidnapping. To each, he replies a little word in Creole, which he masters perfectly. As an aside, he confides. “It’s amazing that they remember me so much… I’ve been gone twenty years from here. “ And yet, in the streets of Aquin, all, even the young people, indeed seem to know him and want to say a few words to him.
“Living in Haiti is an apostolate, Father Briand continues in his soft voice, putting down each of his words. Being there in the midst of the inhabitants is a testimony that asks them questions. “ To live this mission, he is carried by the certainties of faith. “Whoever responds positively to the Lord despite trials is fulfilled by God and living from this hope allows them to be the witness to bring it to those who suffer. “ On this Christmas Eve, Father Briand wants to bring this testimony through presence to the inhabitants of Saut-Mathurine.
This small town nestled in the mountains, in the heart of a tropical forest, was completely devastated on August 14 by an earthquake. Friend of the French missionary, Father Wilnès Tilus, himself from Saut-Mathurine, accompanies us on this visit. A black felt-tip pen on his head to protect himself from the sun, the Haitian priest with the graying mustache shows a pile of rubble in an open space: “It was my parents’ house. “
Of the hundred or so houses in the village, not a single one remained standing. Four months later, almost nothing is really cleared. Since August 14, a few sheets of sheet metal or plywood have served as walls for families. As a roof, tarpaulins, most often flocked in the name of American or European aid. The chapel of the place did not resist either, and the rare benches still standing are now used as tables for boys who play dominoes. The “Earthquake claws”, according to the expression in Haiti.
Unlike Port-au-Prince where everyone walks at a rapid pace and avoids the others, the atmosphere is quite different in Saut-Mathurine. Despite the rubble and further tremors still on the eve of Christmas, the atmosphere is noticeably more relaxed. Father Briand calls out to a young man, Cherestal-Frisnel. After a few customary questions, he asks him: would he hold “Bondye papa” (God the father, in Creole) responsible for the devastating earthquake? “I don’t know… No. ” And what sense to celebrate the birth of Christ while the village is still devastated? “Christmas is the hope of a better life”, answers the young man. The visit ends, it is time to leave for Saint-Roch.
For Father Briand, the day of December 24 begins with a meeting with four young agronomists. For the former cooperant, his ministry as a priest is inextricably linked to the development of the people among whom he lives. He advises, accompanies, directs. Hoping to create emulators, he set up a rabbit farm himself, as an example of a way to develop income and food. But with the agronomists, the discussion quickly drifts towards the Christmas party, the same evening. “Is it really Christmas ?, pretends to wonder Joachim, one of them. Not a sign, not a decoration. ” Categorically, he adds: “It wasn’t like that in years past. “
Dieumilscar, one of Joachim’s comrades, agrees. “Have you noticed that no one wishes each other Merry Christmas?” ” Father Briand, who expresses this wish to each person he meets, confirms: in response, he only receives “yes” or “thank you”. “We cannot really celebrate Christmas because we are in a time of mourning, Dieumilscar breathes. The reality is too overwhelming. ““The situation is going from bad to worse, we have the impression that we cannot fall any lower”, he worries.
After the visit to the south which made us forget the violence of gangs for that of natural disasters, the return to Saint-Roch is tough. Because if the Haitian people are fatalistic and resigned to the unpredictable force of nature, that of men occupies everyone’s mind. And if need be, the flood of vehicles passing the dented, steep, muddy roads of the locality reminds us that a few hundred meters below, in Martissant, the “brigands” – as they are called in Creole – make their terror reign and prevent almost any passage. And this, in a real “Ease in doing evil”, as one of the agronomists deplores to qualify the impunity in which the gangs can act.
In the surroundings of Port-au-Prince, this violence is omnipresent in people’s minds. Everyone is suspicious and understands that they can be a target. Like this teenage girl, sheltered behind the walls of the home for young girls where she lives. “Christmas is different this year, because everywhere there is the risk of kidnapping. “ And to confide her fear to Father Michel as soon as she sees a car with tinted windows passing through the fence surrounding the foyer.
To his parishioners disturbed by the ambient climate of violence with its share of fears, Father Briand wanted to respond during Christmas mass. Rather than long theological reflections, he draws for his homily on what he saw the day before, in Saut-Mathurine. There, he explains, the inhabitants contributed to organize a “community New Year’s Eve”. Festive meal, dances, songs and poems were on the program – a real “Collective therapy after the earthquake”, according to the expression of Father Tilus.
“If we really want change, it is first up to ourselves to change”, exhorts the missionary. Because “Hope is not waiting for sudden changes, but believing in the existence of bright lights for the future”. For him, Saut-Mathurine’s solidarity is certainly one of them. And if it seems that Port-au-Prince has “Abandoned the fight” faced with the terror of the “bandits”, he urges, Noël recalls that “Whatever the difficulties, hope can exist”. Wasn’t Christ himself confronted from his birth with blind violence, with the massacre of the Holy Innocents by Herod?