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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 759-771

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The Flood After the Flood

Nikòl Payen

She comes in the night while I sleep. This is her first and last visit: a blue-black gaunt-face old lady, whose hair is concealed in a blood-red satin scarf. On her frail frame hangs a tattered dress. She appears anxious to communicate from behind the steel fence separating us. Being of a great distance, the details of her face are as unfamiliar as the backdrop where she stands. Though she's not of this world, I know her; I know her well. When she tires of mouthing to deaf ears, her hand motions for me. Come where? This gesture, while simple, is quite complex. Emotions swell my heart, tears flood where I lie. I awake breathless, drenched in ambiguity. For already I feel the urgency of her message—the burden I know I must now carry overwhelms me.

* * *

I arrived in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—or Gitmo—in April 1992, a time when Haitians had transformed this American naval base into a refugee camp. As one of 16 language specialists in "Operation Safe Harbor," I was responsible for interpreting and acclimating to the island thousands of Haitians who, in the wake of the 1991 Coup, were fleeing political persecution and hoping to get political asylum in the U.S. For the first time in my life I felt empowered by my supposed handicap. To think Kreyòl, my insignificant dialect—concocted by African slaves—could link me to such a powerful force as the Pentagon in the execution of its mission.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on Guantanamo, remember it like yesterday. The barren expanse of parched, paper-bag colored land graced with little greenery except for an occasional palm or cactus that stood defiantly in the midst of scorching temperatures; temperatures that succumbed only to the occasional windswept breeze gliding over jagged stalagmite cliffs that parted land from sea. It had the vacant look of an expired planet, containing only remnants of a life passed. The chopping of helicopters or the passing of Humvees crackling the brittle terrain were the only sounds to which I would become accustomed. Otherwise, a hollow silence sterilized the air. For one rarely heard the trilling of birds, the croaking of frogs—or any other natural sound. Overhead, a tropical blue sky provided the only splash of color.

The island was a large city divided into neighborhoods—McCalla and Bulkeley, each with its own purpose. Imagine a town where everyone who lived there was bonded, not by blood, but by a secret mission. The Joint Task Force (JTF)—the unification of all military forces: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and the elitist Coast Guard, who prided themselves as the most superior—composed this governmentally engineered extended family. Here, everybody was a piece of a whole, like body limbs, completely incapable of functioning alone. [End Page 759]

I had been here a mere three days and already it felt like two years. I took in my new surroundings while my mind searched for an answer to the question of how I'd landed in someone else's nightmare. But each day crawled by showing me that horror lived wherever it saw fit; it wasn't restricted to bad dreams, as I once thought. On the contrary, it had equal footing in reality. Until my six-week sentence was up, my greatest challenge was still a mystery. Just how do you stay focused, and amidst this calm storm keep sane? To this end I feel compelled to understand, demystify, and make some sense of this place for peace of mind sake. Perhaps if I'm lucky I'll add clarity to a process that began long before my birth, or better yet, find that Haitian part of myself that in many ways still remains foreign to me.

One morning I was assigned to the unaccompanied minor camp—where parentless children were housed. On my way there, I saw a soldier's over-zealous attempt to discipline a ten-year-old boy...


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