Nicolas Duvalier addressed a friendly crowd at the Ramada Inn in West Palm Beach, Florida, on November 10, 2018, where he appeared as a guest speaker in a dialogue on reconstruction in Haiti. The 35-year-old son of “Baby Doc” and grandson of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, together responsible for nearly three decades of authoritarian terror and brutal human rights abuses in Haiti up until 1986, offered views on the role of the diaspora in Haiti’s development to an audience of young Haitian Americans and nostalgic old Duvalierists. Most of them wanted to know if he will be running for president of Haiti in 2021. He acts like a candidate, but he dodged the question with a smile.
Among older generations, the idea of a Duvalier returning to power sparks widespread revulsion. François Duvalier murdered an estimated 30,000 people during his 14 years in power from 1957 to 1971 in a bloody campaign against alleged dissidents, and his son Jean-Claude also oversaw widespread torture and killings when he succeeded his father as “President for Life” for another 15 years. But three-quarters of Haiti’s population are too young to remember the dictatorship. Violence and staggering inequality have continued since the 1986 overthrow of Nicolas’ father, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Today, many Haitians are frustrated, discouraged, or angry. These could be good circumstances for the ambitions of a young Duvalier, especially because very few Haitians now understand what his grandfather’s regime was really like.
My husband Louis lost an uncle and five cousins to François Duvalier’s terror. Their names were chronicled nowhere until we traveled deep into the countryside to interview surviving family members and witnesses, wrote an article, and made a radio documentary about what happened to them. The experience underscored to me that there were many hidden stories from that dictatorship, and thousands of nameless victims. But even what is known about the 29 years of Duvalier rule is barely taught in Haitian schools.
I joined a local association called Devoir de Memoire Haiti (Duty of Remembrance Haiti), which works to keep memories alive and teach younger generations about Haiti’s dictatorial past and its legacy. I was doing research in southeast Haiti in preparation for a Devoir de Memoire Haiti commemoration when I met Zeïla Madombé, who had lost her father, her older sister, two aunts, 10 uncles, and 30 cousins in 1964.
Twenty members of the remote rural community of Mapou had gathered to meet us—me, Louis, and an old friend who is a local resident—under a great old kenep tree with large exposed snake-like roots in August 2015. It was encircled by rough plank benches and served as the village’s open-air meeting place. Children hung about, but most of the people assembled were older, from their 50s to their 80s. It was four o’clock, hot and humid, but pleasant enough under the shady tree.
We introduced ourselves and explained our research. “Who would like to go first?” I asked. Everyone turned toward Zeïla Madombé.
“Tell me what you remember of 1964,” I said.
She stood and placed her hands on her hips, summoning the horrors of the days following the execution of her father and uncles, when Duvalier’s henchmen had come to their home to round up the family members and lead them away to their deaths.
“We didn’t know what to say, we didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t complain, we couldn’t curse… Everyone told us, don’t you dare call out! But I let out a yell!” She paused. “And [then] my baby was born!”
Eight days later, when the tornado of arrests and executions had ebbed, local policeman Bébé Maître caught Zeïla, seeking her land and other possessions. The Madombé women and children had fled their homes when the men were taken, and Zeïla had been sleeping in the bush with her children and her mother. Bébé demanded that Zeïla turn over the titles to her father’s land. She refused.
“Bébé tied me around the waist with a rope and led me to Bodarie [a nearby town], the lash to my backside, squawking all along the road, ‘Duvalier is great! Long live Duvalier!’”
She explained how she managed to escape: the wife of the local militia chief took pity and cut her cords. But Bébé came back again, twice, and managed to confiscate the deeds, and then burned down the family’s houses. The women and children who had lived there fled to other areas or went into hiding.
In the summer of 1964, François Duvalier had been in power for nearly seven years. He had killed, imprisoned or forced his opponents into exile. Mistrustful of the army, he had created as a counterbalance a militia loyal to him alone, the Volunteers of National Security (VSN). It intersected and overlapped with the secret police corps known as the Tonton Macoutes, named after a mythical creature who kidnaps misbehaving children. That June, Duvalier declared himself President for Life.
It was the last straw for 29 young men who had formed the rebel guerrilla group Forces Armées Révolutionnaires d’Haïti (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Haiti, FARH). Some of its recruits had taken part in earlier efforts to overthrow the dictator—Fidel Castro’s successful guerrilla struggle in Cuba had encouraged Haiti’s opposition, though the FARH did not have a socialist or communist ideology.
The 29 rebels left by boat at night from a quiet spot on the Dominican coast, and on June 29, 1964, they dropped anchor off a beach in Belle Anse, located on Haiti’s southeast coast. Their arrival would set off the worst spate of reprisal killings and the largest single massacre of François Duvalier’s violent 1957-1971 presidency. Yet it is a massacre with no name, left out of history books, and never studied or documented. Testimonies from survivors help piece together some semblance of historical memory.
Zeïla had lived with her large extended family in a compound of seven thatched roof houses in the village of Mapou. Chickens and pigs ran in the yard, swept clean every morning. Children fetched water from the spring, and candles and oil lamps lit the nights. The nearest telephone was several hours away by mule or jeep. But the Madombés owned land, sent some of their children to school, and thought of themselves as not too badly off.
The family was not political. They were certainly not Duvalier opponents, as Zeïla recounted. Some younger members had even joined rural units of the Tonton Macoutes militia and taken part in annual compulsory pilgrimages to Port-au-Prince to cheer on the president. Yet by the end of July 1964, 45 members of the Madombé family had been executed and buried in mass graves in a ruthless campaign to root out one suspected Duvalier critic and exterminate his entire family line. Why?
When I met Zeïla in the summer of 2015, she was 85, although she couldn’t have told me that. “I don’t know when I was born,” she said, “but it was before President Vincent.” In Haiti, unschooled adults who never had a birth certificate often gauge their age by president. Sténio Vincent took office November 18, 1930, during the U.S. occupation that lasted until 1934.
After the local policeman Bébé burned down the family’s houses, Zeïla told us, she said to her mother, “I’m going to Belle Anse. I won’t wait here for them to come get me again, I’m going down to see the State.” Rural people in Haiti sometimes use one word, leta in Creole, l’État in French, the State, to signify anyone from the president to a local tax official or policeman, all of whom are seen as far above the ordinary man or woman.
Bébé was leta in a small way. But he reported to Lieutenant Louis Joseph, the military commander in Belle Anse, the county seat. More powerful still than Commander Louis, as he was known, was André Simon, a member of parliament or deputy, whom Duvalier had designated his special commissioner to the zone.
She prepared for her visit to the commander’s house. Her cousin Bertha’s house had been deserted but not destroyed, so Zeïla, wearing tattered rags, slipped in and took a dress from the cupboard. “I was good-looking. My hair was pretty, and I had a nice little body,” she winked. “I put on that little dress and went down to Belle Anse,” she said. “I got there before daylight and slept a little in the scrub until morning. Then I went toward the commander’s house.” This was a forbidden act: you could be shot for cheekiness. “Finally, I saw the door open a bit. I said, ‘Good morning sir.’”
“Wait a moment,” said the man. She stayed standing, eyes cast down. Eventually, he opened the door fully.
“Good morning. Please sir, could you please show me Commander Louis’ house?” she said, although she knew she was already there. “He looked blankly at me, took a basin of water and washed his face and underarms. Then he dried himself with a towel and went back inside again.”
Zeïla remained where she was. As she recounted her story to us, she asked, “since when do the poor speak up? The poor don’t approach.”
She continued recounting the events that day: A car pulled up and a light-skinned, middle-aged man got out, she told us. He went over to the house across the lane and sat down on the veranda. It was Deputy André Simon, Duvalier’s special commissioner to Belle Anse.
Eventually, she told us, Commander Louis strolled out and sat down next to Simon across the street. He shooed Zeïla away with a dismissive sound. But finally he said, “Miss! Who was it you were asking for?”
“Please sir, if you please, sir, can you show me the house of Commander Louis?’”
“I am Commander Louis,” he said.
“Oh, excuse me, sir!” she said.
She blurted out: “They came three times to arrest me, so I had to come to see you, and to see Deputy Simon.”
“I am the Deputy,” said the older man.
“Excuse me sir, greetings, greetings,” said Zeïla, and she went down on her knees.
“Don’t kneel down,” he said. “I’m not God. What happened to you?”
She said, “Honorable Leta, my Fathers, I have come to see you. Three times you came looking for me. I don’t want leta to bring me in so I borrowed this little dress. I left and I came to find you.”
The commander fingered a lock of her hair, twirling it between his fingers. “Look at a girl who’s asking for my house. Are you going to come live with me?” Zeïla remembers him saying.
“No, commander. It is misery that has brought me here. Every night I’m sleeping in the woods, the ants are eating my mother and my children,” Zeïla told them.
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“Since that thing that’s been going on, they say they’ll kill us all,” said Zeïla.
“Where are you from?” he inquired.
“I’m from behind Saint André church in Mapou.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Zeïla Madombé.”
At the mention of her family name, “He goes ‘Wooooou!’ Tears actually came into his eyes and he put his head into his hands. Neither of them said anything. Commander Louis was frozen. The deputy just sat there.”
Zeïla said, “Deputy sir, say whatever you want to say to me, good or bad.”
The deputy took a pen out of his pocket and a piece of paper from his briefcase: “Now tell me exactly what happened.”
“I started talking. He wrote, I talked, he wrote: ‘My father had seven horses. My father had nine cows, and I don’t remember how many calves. He had seven fighting cocks. He had goats and chickens. They tied me up and made me dance all the way to Bodarie. When I got back, they’d broken into my father’s house and taken every last deed my father had.’”
“Do you know the pieces of land?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “but I don’t know how to read.” And she told him about the land in Bois Tombé, in Kadomas, in St. Michel, in Pot de Chambre, in Ylore, in Kavri.
The deputy called over a small boy and told him to get her some food. He brought a dish and a soft drink with a straw in it. Zeïla put it under her chair. She was too afraid to eat.
Finally, Commander Louis looked at his watch and said, “It’s time to go.” The driver started the car and the two men climbed in. Zeïla sat there in the chair.
“Get in,” said the Commander. He picked up the uneaten dish of food and handed it to her.
“So there I was sitting squeezed in the back of the car,” she told us. “I had to pee so bad!” We laughed alongside her.
“They drove off,” she said, “and I was still thinking maybe they were going to take me to Thiotte and kill me where they had killed my father. But when we reached the Mapou crossroads, the Deputy gave me a piece of paper: ‘Give this to the police.’ He put a bit of money in my pocket, too, and the Commander said, ‘Take your lunch with you!’”
Zeïla went to the police station and handed over the paper, saying, “Give it to Policeman Bébé.” Then she ran off all the way back to her kids, through the banana fields, through the woods. “I grabbed the children and my mother and we went down in a ravine. We lit a little fire, made coffee and ate a little food.”
Two days later, Zeïla put Bertha’s dress back on and took the deputy’s money to go to market. She met an acquaintance: “Girl, you’re free!” he said. “The police are looking for you! They want to beg your forgiveness.”
Zeïla wasn’t fully convinced. “But then they sent a police aide to look for me, and he told me to report on Friday.”
That day, her mother, the children and all the rest of the remaining family came with her. They hid behind a big stand of bamboo near the police station. A table was being set up outside. A policeman climbed up on it and called out “Zeïla Madombé!” She stepped forward and mounted it, looking out over the big crowd that had gathered.
They told her to say what had happened to her. She talked all about how her father’s deeds and everything they owned had been taken. But when they asked her who was responsible, she said, “I don’t know. When they came to arrest me, I ran off.”
“If I had named Bébé and the others they would certainly have murdered me,” she explained.
The police left Zeïla alone after that, and they returned some of the stolen land to the family. But all of the men were gone; those few who had managed to escape changed their names, as did the women and children in Mapou and the entire region.
I heard other stories later of Deputy Simon’s mercurial justice. He would kill carelessly but intervene in favor of a poor man who had been cheated by an official. Sometimes he would have the official executed. In Zeïla’s case, his intervention helped spare her life, but only after Duvalier’s thugs had slaughtered 45 members of her family.
And bold as she was, Zeïla never dreamed of protesting the extermination of her family. For Zeïla and to the peasants of Mapou and the southeast region in 1964, there was no option but to accept the summary executions of hundreds of people. I have been able to confirm the names of 216 individuals killed by the government’s forces that summer, but the true number is certainly higher. A Haitian human rights group estimates there were 600 victims that summer, while locals in the region put the figure at 1,000.
No one was ever charged in connection with these crimes, nor has the state ever acknowledged them. There were no real trials after the dictatorship fell in 1986, nor was a truth commission ever set up. Deputy André Simon and Lieutenant Louis Joseph died in their beds. Local people often blamed themselves or their neighbors for a catastrophe that unfolded over several months. Those who could not flee stayed in their towns after the paroxysm of violence, living next door to the men who had pointed out their family members for execution.
In 2013, Nicolas Duvalier wrote an homage to his grandfather, saying François Duvalier demonstrated “integrity and dedication to the service of those who had placed their trust in him.” He was “a great nationalist” and an “enterprising and dynamic head of state,” Nicolas wrote. “At every stage of his public life … [he] used his sharp mind to defend the values and interests of the Republic of Haiti.”
The young Duvalier now prefers to talk about development, good governance, and even human rights, without getting too specific. When asked in West Palm Beach about his views on the crimes of his father and grandfather, he said he would not return with actions “not recognized under international law” and that “dictatorship no longer has a place.” No one has yet pressed him to explain further.
The unmarked mass graves of July 1964 can be found in three towns of Haiti’s southeast region. In Belle Anse, there is one under the town square, another in the woods near a new school, and two in Mapou village; in Grand Gosier, there is one in a thicket of undergrowth called Terre Fine and another near the high school in the village of Marre-Joffrey; and in Thiotte, there is one just below the police station that in 1964 was the region’s army headquarters, and another in what is now the town cemetery.
Who is buried in these graves? Mostly peasant farmers and small traders, three-quarters of them men. Some are the family members of suspected rebels, such as the Fandals of Grand Gosier, 18 of whom were executed.
Some were caught crossing the border. I learned from a Haitian army communiqué from 1964 that that on the day Papa Doc got the news of the rebel incursion, June 30, his army chief of staff transmitted an order: “Be on alert. Exterminate all individuals in general of any kind crossing the border in either direction.”
Others were apprehended with a pound of coffee, a bag of soap powder, or a measure of oil they had taken from the Bernadotte store “liberated” by the FARH. On the guerillas’ fifth day in Haiti, they had captured the co-owner of the big trading center in Mapou, Mme. Bernadotte, and invited the populace to take what they wanted. As a consequence, local militia were ordered to scour the countryside for traces of goods that might have come from the Bernadotte store. “As soon as they suspected a bit of coffee in your hands was Bernadotte coffee,” one witness told me, “they would kill you. When Deputy Simon got to Mapou, he ordered a hole dug. They gathered the people in the hole, shot them. That’s how it was done. At that time, you didn’t dare leave Mapou with a few coffee beans to sell in Thiotte. Alas!”
No members of the Madombé family were rebels. However, Duvalier came to suspect Zeïla’s second cousin Enock of colluding with the FARH. Enock Madombé was a man in his prime, popular and respected. He was a health worker, possibly a nurse, although the locals called him a doctor.
Zeïla told me that Enock had known the president, that he had journeyed to Port-au-Prince to report the guerrillas’ landing and that Duvalier had sent him back to Mapou on a mission. But someone falsely accused him of working with the guerrillas. Arrested and bought back before Duvalier to be executed, according to legend, he said, “You may kill me but my tail is long.” In other words, there are many more Madombés where he is from.
The “long tail” features in most tellings of the Madombés’ fate to explain the vehemence of the government’s response, the effort to kill every last adult male bearing the name. Outside the family, people say that Enock really did sympathize with the guerrillas and that he was a double agent.
My last interview with Zeïla Madombé took place in January 2017 in the Dominican Republic. She had traveled there to see a doctor about pain in her belly, which turned out to be inoperable cancer. I discovered she had a husband, the father of her youngest children, whom she had never mentioned. I met her son, a Protestant pastor, and two daughters. Vilcimat Joseph, Zeïla’s husband, was also from Mapou. They had married in the 1970s but spent years apart while he cut sugarcane in the Dominican Republic.
The house where I visited them was in Batey Alemán, a settlement outside the city of San Pedro de Macorís. Constructed for Haitian workers in the surrounding sugarcane fields, it had evolved into a mixed if still marginal community. Their wood house had several rooms and electricity, but no indoor plumbing. It was more spacious and more comfortable than Zeïla’s home in Mapou.
Vilcimat Joseph’s family had not been victims in 1964. In fact, as a young man, he had been assigned to help the army collect items looted from the Bernadotte store.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Batey Aleman was procure pain relief medicine for Zeïla. Her prescriptions had run out, and the family was hard pressed to renew them. The next day, when she was feeling better, I asked her to tell me more about the family she had grown up with. She sat up in bed. I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged beside her, taking her through the names she had given me one-by-one, asking her to explain their relationships. Her son, daughters, and husband sometimes helped. I wanted to understand these people who had died, to give them flesh and bones. I was largely unsuccessful. She could not talk about the kind of people they had been.
“In one day, they took my father, my godfather Osman, my uncle Bisson, my uncle Silencieux, called Ti Sourit [Little Mouse], my uncle Solon, my uncle Vilmon, my cousin Andrezil, my cousin Lirama, my cousin Dieulsaint, my uncle Moïse, and my mother’s brother, uncle Letroy,” she told me.
“When they came to your house,” Vilcimat explained, prompting his wife, “they said, give us your cousins. How many cousins do you have? Where is so-and-so? That’s how they took everyone. They bound them, in a line from here,” he pointed, “to there, and then they went with them.” First to Belle Anse, then by truck to Thiotte. “They told them, ‘you will go and you won’t come back.’ And you didn’t come back. You never came back. They killed them under the pine forest, in Thiotte, all those people under the pine forest, in Thiotte.”
“When they got there,” Zeïla said, “they made them go down into a hole. Deputy Simon made them go down into the hole. They killed them all in the hole. They shot them.”
When Zeïla Madombé died on March 13, 2017, Devoir de Memoire Haiti, the association that works to repair Haitian society and honor the dictatorship’s victims, published a full-page ad in Haiti’s main daily newspaper.
“A mighty oak has fallen, the lady has left us, the witness has spoken, and then departed,” it read in part. “Zeïla, your memory and your energy, diminished neither by your eighty-six years nor by the horror you experienced in 1964, allowed a people with a suspended voice to hear the story of the worst that politics can beget, of the vilest that man can conceive.
“Through you, Haiti has finally been able to mourn its loved ones from the Southeast and beyond, its thousands of elders, fathers and mothers, children and infants, crushed by the beast thirsty for the blood of innocents… For you and in your name Zeïla, we will continue to revive Memory so that the truth is recognized, justice can be served, and the nation be reborn from the solidarity of its sons and daughters.”
But Zeïla’s death has not been followed by any new accountability for past crimes. Haitians are still calling for basic reforms of the justice system and a mass movement against corruption has sprung up in recent months. The elected president is contested from all sides.
Could Nicolas Duvalier be the one to benefit from the country’s failure to recognize and punish the crimes of his father and grandfather? Could he leverage Haiti’s interminable post-dictatorship struggle to build a better society for his own power? Perish the thought.
Anne F. Fuller is a former UN human rights official who has lived and worked in Haiti for many years. This article is based on her research for a forthcoming book.