"It was thanks to God and sister Simone". I heard this over and over as I was interviewing rape survivors in Martissant, one of Port-au-Prince's ubiquitous slums. The women were battling the devastating emotional and often physical effects of rape and beating at the hands of the soldiers and paramilitaries during the coup d'etat of l991-1994. They were simultaneously facing social stigma from their community for having been raped, rejection by their male partners, threat of political repercussions if they spoke out, indescribable poverty, and the exhaustion of trying to keep themselves and their children alive each day. My question to these women, which so often invoked Marie Simone Alexandre's name, was "From where have you found the strength to go on?"
I resolved to meet this force whose name was regularly uttered next to God's. I did, and --like the women of Martissant and so many others-- was utterly inspired. Our close personal and political relationship lasted for more than a decade until June 29, when Simone slipped away from a coma after her third operation for a large brain tumor.
It turns out I had met Simone many times before, though each of us was faceless and nameless to the other. Still, our relationship had been a close one, forged during the years of the U.S.-backed coup when rape was regularly used as a weapon of war. My end of our partnership involved generating broad publicity and international pressure to the rape, as well as the other crimes of the illegal regime. The chilling statistics and devastating testimonies were faxed out of Haiti under cover of night from constantly changing underground locations. The origin of much of the information on rape, I learned years later, was Simone. She gathered it at tremendous risk to her life, venturing where all others feared to tread to document the brutality and transmitting it to SOFA, a women's advocacy organization.
Simone told me in an interview for the book Walking on Fire, where she appeared under her chosen nom de guerre Louise Monfils: "I gathered information from many women, house after house. The [women] trusted me so much that if they learned of another woman, they would run to tell me. They would bring that woman to me. I would say, 'Thank you, my sister.' Then I would meet with her and help her like the other ones.
"I couldn't write anything, absolutely nothing, in front of them. My head had to be clear. When five or ten people were telling me the story of their rapes, I had to remember all the names, all the details. I'd take the information and I'd say, 'Okay, I'm going to leave now, but I'll see you soon, hear? I'll come back to see you.' As soon as I got on the road, I'd look for a place I could stop. I'd sit down and write down everything the women told me. And the next time I met with them, I'd bring my notebook. They'd think it was a personal notebook. I'd question them again, trying to review my earlier notes very subtly without their knowing. Then I could verify that the previous information was correct. If I missed something, I could add it. Cheri, that was very difficult work but I had to do it. I did it because I needed the information."
Simone was not only a front-line human rights worker, she was a self-taught therapist and organizer. It was not hard to see why survivor after survivor cited Simone as one of their two fonts of healing. In the evocative high theatric which she always used, Simone described how "[a woman] would start to cry. She'd put her head on my shoulder and cry and I'd rub her back. I'd say, 'You shouldn't be ashamed. It's those guys who should be ashamed! They're savages. Only beasts could do such a horrid act.' I'd tell her, 'Love is something that's too good, too precious, for you to feel ashamed when you've been a victim.' I would tell her not to cry because we're there for her. We're there!"
And here would come in her role as a tireless organizer. "Meeting with them as victims of rape wasn't enough. When we finished taking their testimony, we needed to get them together and get them to form a women's organization. We helped them understand their rights. Also, we wanted to help these women be the owners of their bodies. No one else may have control over their bodies. Nobody may have authority over them."
Simone's whole life was about helping marginalized people attain knowledge, voice, and power. In the l980s she organized peasant groups and Christian base communities. She helped community members gain popular education, build collective silos to store grain and seeds, and organize themselves into the democracy movement. Much of her life then, as later, was spent underground, especially when in the l987 attacks against the tilegliz (little church) movement to which Simone was deeply attached. She repeatedly fled from one area to another, often running with nothing but the clothes on her back. "I ran though the forest, through the woods and the bushes. I slept at different friend's houses along the way: one night here, another night there. Once, oh! I was so hungry. I went into a strangers garden and pulled up a cassava plant. I took three cassavas. I said to myself, Well, if they want to arrest me, now they can get me for stealing."
In l990, Simone's home and all her belongings were burned by soldiers in Piatte during their massacre of peasants. Simone almost lost her life, but not her characteristic nerve or quick thinking. "I ran and hid myself in some rocks beneath a waterfall. I saw all the killing, everything they did. Every little while I stuck my head out to see what they were doing, and I took notes. I unwrapped the paper from a cigarette and wrote down everything. I folded the paper, put it in the plastic wrapping from a cigarette pack, and stuck it in a hole in the hem of my dress. Even if they had searched me, they wouldn't have found anything.
"I slipped into the middle of the killers and moved right along with them. They thought I was one of them. People told me later they thought I'd vanished in thin air. It wasn't true! I took a chance and walked right in the middle of the crowd that had just committed the massacre."
Simone engaged in any work she could find, paid or unpaid, that would empower people beaten down by repression and poverty. She served on the board of advisors of the Lambi Fund of Haiti. To the best of my knowledge, she worked as health promoter and women's sexuality educator with CRAD, as community development worker with American Friends Service Committee, and as outreach worker with APROSIFA in its project of promoting the Hesperian Foundation's Where There Is No Women's Doctor. While on a speaking tour with me throughout the U.S., she blew audiences away with her riveting descriptions of life in Haiti and her impassioned call for international solidarity. It seemed that no one came away from hearing Simone unchanged.
Conversation with Simone was always dominated by stories of struggle. As hard as her life was, her focus was on those whose lives were much harder; she never forgot their fates for a moment. Often she would sigh heavily and cluck her throat in despair, but then would quickly move on to talking about the need for people --especially women-- to organize to gain democracy and rights.
Under tremendous duress, Simone put herself through nursing school in the early 2000s. She was committed to getting quality health care for indigent women, and fought for the time to study while working at odd jobs that would support her two sons and pay her meager rent. Her nursing career was short-lived and challenging. I recall her talking about her struggle to get the money for the white stockings that she was required to wear on her job, and about how many hours a day she spent fighting public transportation to get to the hospital. Simone's eyesight quickly deteriorated so much from her as-yet undetected brain tumor that she could not continue her career.
The one time I ever saw Simone happy and relaxed was when she won a fellowship and plane ticket to attend a two-week meditation retreat in the mountains of New Mexico. I drove up from my home in Taos one day to visit her. I found her on a silent day, eating lunch in the old lodge. She led me outside under a grove of aspen trees to engage in illicit conversation. "Bev, little sister! I'm not dominated by horrible images, my heart isn't pounding. This meditation is wonderful therapy." Typically, Simone's first thought was how to export the healing experience back to traumatized women in Haiti. We received a commitment that one of the meditation teachers would go to Haiti to teach a seminar, but that never materialized.
A couple of years later, in the early 2000s --still traumatized from the violence that she witnessed and lived, physical as well as structural-- Simone jumped a tourist visa and settled in Florida. There, impoverished, alienated, and undocumented, her work became that of sporadic cleaning of hotels and working in restaurant kitchens.
Still, her dream was to start an organizing and rehabilitation center for Haitian women especially survivors of domestic and state-sponsored violence-- where they could claim their dignity and their rights. Her lack of access, English, administrative skills, and fundraising knowledge forever thwarted that dream.
Simone's doctor discovered a brain tumor, and while a first operation seemed to successfully remove it she was left legally blind. She was so poor that, until very recently, she did not even own glasses.
Over the course of time, some combination of physical and psychological devastation caused Simone to increasingly isolate herself in Miami and later Homestead, Florida. She broke connections with many former colleagues, turned down a job offer at Partners in Health (which would have taken her back to Haiti), and moved from house to house. While still overcome by psychological and emotional trauma, her brain tumor grew back aggressively. A second operation for it last week resulted in internal bleeding; a third emergency operation to repair that was unsuccessful.
Simone's story reflects many aspects of the story of Haiti. Her unflagging determination for justice never succeeded in the large. It was thwarted by violent and corrupt leadership, legal impunity, and a U.S. government hell-bent on stopping forward moves toward democracy and economic rights. Nevertheless, Simone's ferocious organizing, advocacy, and counseling were able to nurture the dream, and to nurture healing and vision within the wounded dreamers. Her efforts, among those of so many Haitians, are what fuel hope for the country.
Simone also reflects another element of Haiti's history: lack of support for Haiti's best resource, its citizenry. In her work Simone not only had to fight against institutional powers, but also against some sectors in middle-class feminist civil society who rejected her. Moreover, while she never sought acclaim, she did need basic resources, open doors, and alliances to sustain her while she did her imperative work; lack of those things always saddened and frustrated her. Choosing exile over poverty, thwarted democracy, and lack of solidarity, Simone was lost to the diaspora, where she became one more nameless ilegal. In her final year of illness she was lovingly cared for by a U.S. American member of her church, but otherwise died alone, devastated, and unrecognized for the heroine she was.
Recounting for Walking on Fire her "true Calvary" of working with rape survivors during the coup d'etat, Simone told me, "It was like I was walking with my little coffin under my arm. But even if the [rapists] had beaten me, it wouldn't have mattered. It would have been because I was part of something just and noble.
"I didn't want to have a heavy heart when I was going to bed because my conscience was troubling me. With a conscience, when you do wrong, you know it. You can't sleep at night. When you do good, frankly, you feel well. You lie down and say, 'Dear God, I feel good',and then sleep carries you away."
Sleep well, sister Simone. Ou mewite sa. You deserve it.
Beverly Bell is director of the Center for Economic Justice and author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance (Cornell University Press, 2002). Among other struggles, Beverly has been deeply involved with the movement for human rights, democracy, and gender justice in Haiti for the past 25 years.