On this International Women's Day, we rerun a 2005 piece on one of our greatest heroines, Marie Simone Alexandre. Though she died eight years ago, her life and message remain as powerful and inspirational today as any we know.
"It was thanks to God and Sister Simone." I heard this over and over in the mid-1990s as I was interviewing rape survivors in one of Port-au-Prince's shantytowns. The women were battling the devastating effects of rape, employed as a weapon of war by one in a decades-long series of U.S.-backed regimes. My question to these women, which so often invoked Simone'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. When I did, I was - like the rape survivors - utterly inspired. Our close personal and political relationship lasted for more than a decade until June 29, 2005, when she slipped away from a coma after her third operation for a large brain tumor.
It turns out Simone and I had had a relationship long before we met, though each had been faceless and nameless to the other. That relationship had been forged during the years of the 1991-94 coup d'état against Haiti's first-ever democratically elected president. My end of our partnership involved generating broad publicity and international pressure against the rape, as well as the other crimes of the illegal regime. Many of the chilling testimonies and statistics I used had been faxed out of Haiti under cover of night from constantly changing underground locations. And the origin of much of that information, I learned years later, was Simone. She had gathered it at tremendous risk to her life, venturing where all others feared to tread.
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 bring that woman to me. 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 details. As soon as I got on the road, I'd look for a place I could stop. I'd sit down and write everything the women told me. Cheri, sweetheart, that was very difficult work, but I had to do it."[ii]
Simone was not only a front-line human rights worker, she was also a self-taught therapist. It was easy to see why many survivors cited her as one of their two fonts of healing. In the evocative high theatric which she always used, she 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 too good, too precious, for you to feel ashamed when you've been a victim.' I'd tell her not to cry because we're there for her. We're there!"
Here, then, would come her role as a tireless political organizer, helping the women form grassroots groups. She said, "Meeting with them as victims of rape wasn't enough. When we finished taking their testimony, we needed to get them together and form a women's organization. We gave them support and helped them understand their rights. Also, we wanted to help these women be the owners of their bodies. Nobody else can have authority over them.
"Cheri, I'm telling you: during those years of hell, people disappeared. And if someone talked, the attackers would beat them, take them away, kill them. The rapists always said to the women, 'Don't you go tell the radio station about this or we'll come back and kill you.' And I recorded all this information in a notebook.
"I could feel good during the day, but when the night came, I had trouble. I tell you, whenever I heard the noise of a straw breaking in the yard or a dog barking, I sat up in bed and lit a cigarette. I was shaking, I was so scared."
Simone's whole life was consecrated to helping marginalized people attain knowledge, voice, and power. In the l980s, she had organized peasant groups and Christian base communities. She had helped community members gain popular education, build collective silos to store grain and seeds, and organize themselves into the democracy movement.
Much of Simone's life, then as later, was spent underground. When she was organizing in the 1980s, 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 friends' houses along the way: one night here, another night there. Once, oh! I was so hungry. I went into a stranger's 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 paid thugs in the village of Piatte during a massacre of farmers demanding land reform. 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 the 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 among the killers and moved right along with them. People thought I had disappeared into 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."
Conversation with her 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, thinking about her own plight, 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.
Recounting what she called her "true Calvary" of working with rape survivors during the coup d'état, Simone said, "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 a. You deserve it.
[i] See, for example, Tim Weiner, "Haitian Ex-Paramilitary Leader Confirms CIA Relationship," New York Times online, December 3, 1995; Allan Nairn, "Haiti under the Gun: How U.S.-Backed Paramilitaries Rule through Fear," Nation, January 8-15, 1996, 11; John Kifner, "Haitians Ask If U.S. Had Ties to Attaché," New York Times, October 6, 1994; Allan Nairn, "Our Man in Fraph--Behind Haiti's Paramilitaries," Nation, October 24, 1994; and Marcia Myers, "Claiming CIA Ties, Haitian Sues over Detention in U.S.: Paramilitary Leader Had Opposed Return of President Aristide," Baltimore Sun online, December 12, 1995.
[ii] Beverly Bell, Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2001).
Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti's Divide.
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