Rarely do we hear from the victims of the 1937 genocide of Haitians at the Haiti-Dominican border. Their memories are one of unimaginable violence.
In last week’s issue, we marked the eight-fifth anniversary of the 1937 massacre of Haitian migrants by the military and local citizens of the Dominican Republic. Ordered by the racist dictator, Rafael Trujillo, between 14,000 and 40,000 people - men, women, and children - were slaughtered. According to a U.S. observer present at the time, “women killed with three-pointed daggers, and babies tossed on bayonets in the hands of drunken Dominican rural police.” The scale of this state-sponsored monstrous event demonstrates the hatred of Haitians and Blackness on that side of the island.
Over the years, the governments of the Dominican Republic have treated Haitian migrants living and working on the border with absolute contempt. For example, the denationalization law that the government passed in 2013 stripped citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent going back eight generations. Meanwhile, the Dominican government has regularly rounded up and deported Haitian people. Indeed, every few years, especially as the domestic economic situation deteriorates, the Dominican political elite have used Haitian migrants as scapegoats to their corruption and bad governance. As we wrote last week, we are, once again, at a precipice as the racist and belligerent discourse of the current right wing Dominican President, Luis Abinader, sounds eerily similar to that of Trujillo.
Though the 1937 massacre - or, more appropriately, genocide - is now known, we have rarely heard from those who witnessed it. As a follow up to last week’s article on antiHaitianism in the Dominican Republic, we publish the testimonies of two eyewitnesses to the 1937 genocide. These testimonies were collected in the late 1980s by Professor Lauren Derby at Haitian-Dominican border communities, and published in an online post in 1999. At the time of the interviews, fifty years had passed since the genocide, described as “El Corto,” or “the cutting.” At the time, the survivors were mere children. But it is significant how clear and strong their memories are. The brutality of this massacre cannot be overstated; one witness reports that, “There were a lot of small children who were thrown up in the air and stabbed with a bayonet, and then placed on top of their mothers,” and: “they killed my entire family…we were twenty-eight.” It is also important to note that many Dominicans resisted this massacre. Some warned the Haitian population beforehand while others hid Haitian friends in their homes or transported them across the border. Furthermore, as the witnesses pointed out, the border communities coexisted: “Before the massacre, in the frontier, although there were two sides, the people were one, united.” But also, it seems that the massacre was sudden, unexpected, and the beginnings of their division. “The first problem was the massacre.”
As we watch the rising tensions at the Dominican-Haitian border, fueled primarily by a distinct antiBlack and antiHaitian hatred, we reprint these testimonies. May this history not be repeated.
Temwayaj Kout Kouto, 1937: Eyewitnesses to the Genocide
Anonymous man in Ouanaminthe
At the time of the massacre, I was a child, so I wasn’t at risk. When the massacre started, I was at school; I went to a religious school. The fathers had a choir for all the children who sang; and they had a group of kids who knew how to sing, and I was always singing with the Fathers. When the massacre started, the children were in school, and I was at choir. And October 7th, the day of the patron saint festival at Dajabon, the Fathers took us over there, since the frontier was free to cross, and no one was afraid to cross the border at that time. So the Fathers took us to go to mass there, so that we could sing in the choir at mass there. And while we were in the church, I saw a band of Dominican military who were milling about outside while we were in church. Since we were children, we didn’t understand anything. What happened then was that the military wanted to kill people that very day — they actually wanted to take people from the church and kill them! What happened was that the Fathers, who were foreign (they were French), I think the Fathers weren’t pleased at all with this? (pa rapo), they didn’t want it to happen, and yet when it became night, around six PM, around that time, they started killing people anyway. They started killing people around six o’clock, while people started crying out for help, people started running, they came wounded, they crossed the massacre river, they all came wounded, they killed a lot of people. A Lot of people who were saved came here. And so, this is how I came to Dosmond colony. When people started arriving, the Vincent government rounded up people in the Dominican Republic; the war began with a lot of people dead, a lot of Haitians were taken when war came to the frontier. They finished killing people after one week, a week later. The Vincent government sent for the rest of the Haitians. Then Trujillo sent his men to gather and haul out the rest of the Haitians left behind; they brought war to the border.
In Ouanaminthe, when you looked at the river, it was completely a sea of people and donkeys – it was completely full! Because many of the people — in fact most of the Haitians on the Dominican side – were afraid to live in the Dominican Republic any more. They were forced to leave although they didn’t have a place to go to in Haiti since they had never lived there. When they arrived in Haiti, they were homeless refugees. So the government had to make colonies for them because Dosmond was a big savanna, a place where I knew everyone by name. My father has a beautiful garden in the savanna. It really was a savanna – there weren’t any houses at all, nothing like it. The place was a desert. Before the massacre, in the frontier, although there were two sides, the people were one, united. All the tradesmen in Dajabon – all the cobblers and tailors – they were all Haitian. And even today there are Haitians all over Ouanaminthe, even though they still die today, there are still Haitian children there today, crossing the border daily. Haitian children, even if they were born in Dajabon, they still went to school in Haiti, every morning they would cross the border to go to school, every afternoon they would return; their parents lived in Dajabon, but they came to school here. Haitians have always lived the French system of education, and the Catholic schools. Even the Dominicans love the French language, and the French language helps them to speak Kreyol a lot.
Irelia Pierre, Dosmond/Ounaminthe
I was born in the Dominican Republic. When the massacre broke out, I was very small. I remember that I had been in school awhile. The day of my brother’s marriage, after the service was over, a Dominican arrived at the reception. The reception was the morning that the massacre broke out, and people started fleeing. That night we hid. The next morning when we woke up, some of the older people said "Be careful if you go out"; so we stayed at home. Everyone came to my grandparents’ house. They said they were going to Haiti because a revolution had broken out, and that they were killing Haitians. They all slept at my grandparents’. During the night, a woman said to me, "You come with me to my house." I said, "No, I’m going to stay with my mother – I can’t leave her here." So we went out to the garden where my mother was working, and she cut some bananas and put them in her bag. I carried a tree branch. Suddenly, I looked over and saw a lot of Guardia [Dominican military] getting off their horses, and I heard them say, "There’s one over there in the garden," then they entered the garden and killed the girl. When I saw that, I ran. It was night. While I was running, I saw an uncle of mine, who took me into his house to protect me. When I arrived at his house I was terrified. They didn’t let me sleep; they took me to another place. That morning at four am they all took their bags and we started to march towards Haiti. While we were walking, some Dominicans told us to be careful and not go through Dajabon, but to pass around it, since they were killing people there. When we arrived at the Dajabon savanna, we saw a Guardia. When we saw him I said, "Mama, we’re going to die, we’re going to die!." She told me to be quiet. Then the guardia said "esta preso, esta preso!" [that one’s arrested!]. After that they had us all stand in the sun in the savanna. When we said we were thirsty, they said they would give us water soon. While we watched, we saw one Guardia on a horse who had a rope to tie up people. When he saw that if he tied up too many people they started to run, he began to kill them and throw them into a hole. He killed everyone; I was the only one who was saved. They thought I was dead because they had given me a lot of machete blows. I was awash in blood — all the blood in my heart. After all these tribulations, it’s thanks to God that I didn’t die. They killed them all in front of me; they tied them up, and after they killed them, they threw them down. I was small when I lived through all of this, but I remember it all too clearly. I remember calling out after the Guardia had left, "Mama!", but she was dead; "Papa!", but he was dead; they died one after another. I was left alone in the savanna without anything to eat or drink...There were a lot of small children who were thrown up in the air and stabbed with a bayonet, and then placed on top of their mothers. They killed my entire family, my mother, my father. We were twenty-eight – all were killed. I was the only one to survive that I knew of. After they finished cutting me up, it was a group of older men who had come from Haiti who found me on the ground in the sand along the banks of the Massacre River. They picked me up and returned me to Haiti. They brought me to Ouanaminthe, but they didn’t take me in — they said they couldn’t take care of me so they said they would send me to Cap Haitian; when I arrived there, there would be people there to take care of me. [Most of the massacre victims were sent to a hospital in Cap Haitian, where they were attended by the Catholic Church.] I spent a month in bed in the hospital, after which time they sent me to live in Ouanaminthe. When I arrived here, I didn’t have any family to receive me, so I went back to Cap again. I stayed under the auspices of the state. After about a year, they sent me back to Ouanaminthe again, at which time I lived there with some other foreigners. God gave me the strength to survive. Now I am married and have four children, but my entire family died during the massacre. Both my mother and father were born in the Dominican Republic. We lived in Loma de Cabrera. My father worked in agriculture, growing manioc, peanuts, rice on his own land – land that he had bought. He had ten karo [a Haitian peasant unit of land measurement] of land. He also kept some cattle, pigs, chickens, and goats. We grew enough food to feed the family (we never bought food at market) but also to sell. I used to go to market with my mother where we sold everything – peas, rice, bananas, corn. I only spoke Kreyol since we lived among Haitians. I hardly spoke Spanish at all. There were some Dominicans in the area where we lived, but not many; there were mostly Haitians. There were both marriages between Haitians and Dominicans, as well as concubinage. There were no problems that I remember between Haitians and Dominicans — for example, no jealousy for Haitian land. The first problem was the massacre.
Reprinted from Bob Corbett’s Haiti Page.