It was 9:30 on a mid-July morning in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Classes were well underway at this school for poor children located in the wealthy Delmas neighborhood on Rue Freres Jacques. The two-story cinderblock building holds 700 students and 40 teachers. The children had been at their studies since 7AM.
Without warning, a local Mayor named Wilson Jeudi, pistol in hand, raided the building with eight armed thugs. The group began to wreck the school, destroying the modest furniture and equipment carefully accumulated over years. They roamed through the building, breaking every single blackboard. The broken blackboards still show algebra problems, French vocabulary lessons, and alphabets. They smashed the wooden benches and desks where the children sit for their lessons, and shattered the precious water fountain.
Confronted by the attackers, the Head Teacher refused to leave. In front of the children, they kicked him, threw furniture and beat him with the butt of their guns. Approaching the school offices, the Mayor threatened the secretary and the janitor, telling them to get out because he was closing the school.
For 12 years, Haitian grassroots activists from Mobilization pour Changer La Vie have worked to build this school devoted to educating poor children. The school, like many others, emerged during the first administration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when literacy campaigns and access to education for Haiti’s poor was a major focus of the progressive Lavalas agenda. The director tells us, “It took 12 years to build this school, and only one day to destroy it.”
There are an estimated 300,000 children who perform domestic chores as unpaid household servants in Haiti and thousands more street children. These are among the children served by the school. These children had a voice during President Aristide’s administrations. They had the first children’s radio station in the world, Radyo Timoun, which promoted human rights for all Haitians. Democracy meant that 299 schools, numerous health clinics and parks were built to advance Haitian children’s lives. The government gave scholarships to children in domestic service. As a local Haitian told us while we surveyed the wreckage, “Aristide was trying to help the lower classes — that’s why he was kidnapped.” Now, hope recedes for the children of Haiti as the US-backed wealthy elite fight to regain control of the country’s resources and agenda.
An estimated 500,000 Haitian children cannot afford to attend school. Only the wealthy can pay $100 a month to educate their children. Here at College Classiques de Freres, those who can are asked to pay $6 per month. There are families with five children attending the school who don’t pay anything. As September approaches, families and teachers alike worry about whether classes will open. And, teachers tell us, the children may be scared to come.
The property on which the school stands once belonged to Michel Francois, chief of secret police under the coup regime of Raoul Cedras, which ousted democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. When Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994, Francois went into exile. He was later indicted by the US Justice Department for shipping millions of dollars worth of cocaine and heroin from Haiti to the US, and now lives undisturbed in exile in Panama.
His property was seized and sold to a new owner, who then sold a portion of it to the school. The school pays money on the property each month.
The Mayor of Delmas is Michele Francois’ cousin. His designs on the property reflect the new reality in Haiti – the re-ascendance of the wealthy elite protected by the US/UN occupation. A teacher told us, “Mayor Wilson knew he couldn’t get the place legally, so he came in to terrorize.” Everywhere we traveled in Port-au-Prince, the poor are being assaulted by reinvigorated right-wing forces and by UN troops — in the markets, the schools, streets, in the poor neighborhoods, at the workplace and the prisons.
Children are not spared. In fact, thinking about two little girls — Stephanie and Alexandria — who were killed last January by UN troops in Cite Soleil, children are at great risk. As a teacher at the school noted, “when the police come in Haiti, they don’t care about children.” Another progressive school, SOPUDEP, has also come under attack by anti-Lavalas authorities.
Meanwhile, Rue Frere school adminstrators and teachers prepare for September classes. They seize upon our visit to get the word out and help protect the school. They have reported the Mayor and his gang to the police with the expectation that an investigation will be conducted. They have invited news media to visit the school to witness the damage. The resolute directors and teachers of Rue Frere School will no doubt succeed in rebuilding this important popular-based institution.