By Stan Friedman
CAP HAITIAN, HAITI (November 23, 2010) – Editor’s note: Covenant News Service published a story last Thursday about two Covenanters who barely made it out of Haiti on what would be the last flight for several days from the island. They had been forced to drive down a runway to get to the terminal. The plane that would eventually fly them home landed in front of their car. The pair had no way to know the plane was carrying a mission team from Edina Covenant Church. That team would get caught up in the riots. Following is their story.
At 7 a.m. on Monday, November 18, Janelle Peterson left the Ebenezer Clinic with Ben, the ministry’s accountant, in a rented van to drive to the Cap Haitian airport. They planned to pick up a 10-person mission team from Edina Covenant Church that was traveling from Minnesota to offer medical assistance and complete finishing touches at a hospital being built by the Ebenezer Clinic in Haut-Limbe. The trip had been planned long before the current cholera outbreak.
Ben and Peterson, a Covenant missionary sponsored by the Evangelical Covenant Church of Canada, were halfway to the airport when they received a phone call that the road was blocked just outside the city. They turned off the main highway and took some back roads to the airport – “including a little bit of 4x4ing,” Peterson recalls. They made it to the airport around 8 a.m.
The IBC Airlines flight carrying the team was late. When the plane did arrive, it flew just over a vehicle that was speeding down the runway. Matthew Nalywaiko and Andrew Mark from Redwood Covenant Church were in the car.
They had been on a mission trip and were trying to catch the same plane back to the United States. They had navigated around the roadblocks and made their way through an open gate, and the runway was the only path to the terminal. Click here to see their story.
Their flight would be the last one out of the country for several days. The Edina team was on the last one in.
A second plane carrying the group’s luggage didn’t land. It was turned back to Florida because of the rioting that had erupted. No one immediately told the group, however, that the plane had been diverted, so they waited for it.
“Just after we landed and while we were waiting in the arrival area, United Nations trucks came through the airport and gassed the crowds outside,” says Edina member Bryan Malley, who also is the director of communications for the Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
“People were fleeing into the waiting area we were in after they were gassed,” Malley continues. “It took a little while for us to realize that this was not a simple local commotion. After we were moved into another waiting room and started to hear gunfire and larger scale rioting outside, it sunk in that this was serious.”
Word filtered to the group that rioting had broken out across the city. The violence was targeted against the United Nations troops, who the people accused of bringing cholera to the island.
The roadblocks prevented the group from leaving via the main roads from the airport. The Edina group as well as about 30 other people remained stranded in the waiting area for several hours “with the rioting going on right outside,” Malley says. They were on their own because the airport staff had left.
Despite the commotion, the group talked and played cards to pass the time. Meanwhile, Ben rode a motorcycle around the interior of the airport grounds looking for a way to get the group out. He eventually found an open gate – probably the one through which Mark and Nalywaiko were able to slip into the airport.
When he returned, most of the team piled into the van. Rachael Jarman, who had organized the trip, her husband Chris, and Peterson rode in a pickup truck that also had been sent to bring the group to the clinic.
“By the time we got to the exit we were going to take from the airport, a roadblock already had formed there,” Malley says. “It was the first of several roadblocks we encountered, and a group of angry men were pounding on the truck and shouting at us.”
Ben negotiated a bribe with the men, who then let the vehicles pass. “We paralleled the main road on rural – and very rough – back roads in attempts to avoid the major rioting and road blocks in Cap Haitien,” Malley says. “But we still encountered several smaller-scale road blocks of burning tires and crowds along the way.
“Each time, our drivers and Ben would get out and negotiate our passage with men holding bottles and machetes.”
Jarman first traveled to Haiti with a Covenant Bible College mission team in 1990. She returned in 1993 and spent three months helping Dr. Manno start the Ebenezer clinic. While there, she had experienced the riots that occurred during a coup. She also had returned several other times on mission teams.
This was the first trip she had organized, and Jarman was concerned about the team. She thought to herself, “This is not what they signed up for.”
Nature provided its own barriers as well. “At one point along the back road we also had to cross a fairly large rushing river with muddy banks on each side,” Malley says. “That was almost equally as scary as the early road blocks. Somehow both vehicles made it through.”
Eventually, the vehicles had to travel the main roads, which were only slightly more passable than the back roads. The roadblocks were larger, however. The roadblock at a town called Pillatre presented the biggest challenge.
Ben negotiated with the angry group for at least 15 minutes and eventually took a motorcycle to the other side of the block to talk with the leader. “While he was gone, another truck had pulled in front of us and we don’t really know what happened, but whatever that driver did or said, people started breaking bottles and getting very angry with him,” Malley says. “At this point, our drivers backed us away from the situation a little ways and we watched as the rioters forced that vehicle to turn around and flee.”
Ben’s negotiations were successful, but the driver for the truck was switched and another man with a gun in his waistband replaced him. After a moment, “I suddenly realized he was the leader of the gang that was blockading the road,” Jarman says. He spoke ‘perfect English’ and told of how he had lived in the United States for 18 years, but was deported on drug charges.
The clinic’s reputation and the staff’s familiarity with some people helped convince the leader to let the team through with only a small payoff, says Peterson. The leader had several members of his gang ride in the bed of the pickup truck, which helped ensure the team would not meet any further resistance on the way to the clinic.
Although some of the protesters still did not want to let the vehicles through, others moved one of the two large trucks that had blocked the road. “The left side of our van was literally one or two inches from the remaining blocking truck, and the right side tires barely stayed on the road, which had a cinder block retaining wall and a five-foot drop off to our right,” Malley says.
Around 4 p.m., three hours after first leaving the airport, the team arrived safely at the clinic. Jarman was impressed that all of the team remained calm throughout the ordeal. She adds, “There was always this sense of what did we get ourselves in to?”
When the team stepped out of the vehicles, they didn’t take time to reflect on what had happened. “Everyone thought, okay, we’re here. Let’s do what we’re here to do,” says Jarman.
Part of the team began treating the ever-increasing number of cholera patients who were overwhelming the clinic staff. Others helped with various projects.
The team still would need to get out of Haiti when their week of service was completed.
“By Thursday, many of us were beginning to wonder if we would be able to get out of the country anytime soon,” says Peterson.
Peterson had called the airline every day to see if the team’s luggage had arrived, but it never did. Even if the plane had arrived, blockades still prevented anyone from getting to the airport.
“We started to pursue avenues to evacuate the Minnesota team earlier than their Monday departure date,” Peterson says. “At first, it was recommended that they leave via the Carnival Cruise ship that would be landing in nearby Labadee on Friday. But later learned that to do that, they would have to register at the American Embassy, all the way in Port au Prince.”
Peterson learned a Missionary Flights International plane could fly the team out of Port au Prince at 1 p.m. Friday. That would have meant an eight-hour drive in good conditions and there still were reports of roadblocks.
The Cap Haitien airport reopened Friday, but the group was unable to make it there in time to catch a flight. The team decided to leave Saturday and they were able to get to the airport without incident.
“Things were still tense at the airport and in the city, but the riots had stopped for the time being,” says Malley.
Peterson says last week’s events were even more stressful for her than the week following January’s devastating earthquake. She also left Saturday on a flight bound for Florida for a previously arranged break. She plans to return this Saturday.
Jarman, a mother of two small children, hopes to return to Haiti some day, but says, “I’ve had my fill for a while.”