I have been associated for years with Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL) in different ways. In 1997, I published a book with the foundation, Forgotten Memory, about the effects of the unrest and violence that took place here during the period when so many hundreds of thousands of ordinary, impoverished Haitians were bearing the brunt of an economic embargo that was supposed to undo the country’s president. I studied philosophy in France and trained as a clinical psychologist and written my doctoral dissertation on the branch of psychiatry that focuses on ethnicity and cultural differences. I also worked for 25 years on international projects dealing with organized violence and its effects on individual and communities. I have been interested in persons living on the margins of society. Victims of organized violence in many instances find themselves on the margins of society, as do many people here in Haiti.
I began working for FOKAL in Port-au-Prince’s Martissant area in 2008. This is an extremely interesting community of about 45,000 people. Here you have both established people from Port-au-Prince’s lower middle class and people who are not native to Martissant and arrived 20 or 30 years ago. This latter group includes thousands of people who left their homes to come here because their fields would not support them anymore. They are as intelligent and motivated and eager to thrive as anyone else. But until they arrived in Martissant, they had no chance to experience living outside their villages. They had no experience with life in an urban area. These people have been marginalized for two decades, in part due to violence, including murders, kidnappings, and armed robberies by individuals and by criminal gangs. Some of this violence has been committed by one group against another. Some of it has been politically motivated.
My job has been to work among these people. Most of them are going about their life struggles quietly. But some of them are people who have been violent, including some who have been members of armed gangs. My specific work began with the implementation of the project to establish Martissant Park. My role was to reach out to the community, to meet these people, because there can be no Martissant Park project without a link with the community.
We began by reaching out to them as individuals and as representatives of groups they had formed for a variety of purposes. We counted some 200 local organizations in Martissant, some with 60 members, some with 3 members, and some with a name and nothing else. Then, in November 2008, we started organizing group meetings involving a dozen or so selected persons from Martissant, men and women.
These were gatherings of people who did not know one another, because in these steep hills around Martissant many people do not have contact with people who live outside their immediate neighborhood. These neighborhoods are not just isolated by the topography and the daily routine of survival lived by their inhabitants; they are also isolated because they come from different neighborhoods, or even streets, under the control of antagonistic gangs. For years, many people from one hilltop, for example, would not walk through the neighborhood on the next hilltop for fear of becoming a victim of violence, including murder and kidnapping. So people in one area did not know anything about people from another area, and many people on one side of the territorial divides believed only the worst about people on the other and did not want to associate with them.
For many of the persons we selected, the letters they received from us were the first written invitations they had ever received in their lives. The group sessions were designed to help break down the barriers that existed between people from the different antagonistic neighborhoods. We call these meetings by a French term Espace de Parole, “Expression Spaces.” The words suggest a kind of free speech zone, but the reality is that Espace de Parole is a process, the application of a method.
During one session, each group met three times a week for about two and a half hours. During these meetings, the participants were asked to explain how they envisioned Martissant Park. What were their dreams of the park? What might the park offer them and the other people living around it? How were these people living? What had had they experienced? What did they feel about their lives and the future?
So, in reality, the meetings were not solely about the park at all. The discussions, the dreams they shared in common, the dialog, and the accounts people gave of their lives and experiences…these all helped to dismantle barriers. The participants, if all went well, began to develop empathy with one another as they got to know one another. They began to open up, and some for the first time got the opportunity to talk freely of their lives. During the sessions, the participants were communicating with people who had similar experiences of life, but lived on opposite sides of a divide…and they were, and still are all living very close to the park.
The process seemed to be free-flowing, but it was actually structured. We chose the questions to be discussed: on the development of park, on security, on topics that link the park project with their lives. We avoided separating discussion of their lives and discussion of the park project. We spoke of what it means to be a citizen, in order to help them grasp that they are citizens, to grasp that they have the rights and the responsibilities to participate in the life of their community and country, and that they have the power to assert their rights, so long as they have the will.
We met people from many different backgrounds. We met a number of people who were affiliated with armed gangs in some way. We had a few very precise rules. No guns. No fighting. No inflammatory language. And they respected these rules. We never had a problem. It was not our goal to erase memories of past trauma. Our goal was to listen to them speak of their experiences, including their traumas, and the consequences they had for their lives, for the lives of their families, and for life in their community.
It was important to listen as they expressed themselves about the past, and about the future. In a way, we were opening up the idea of a future by having them articulate what they thought about the future. And when you open up the future, the past takes care of itself.
In this way, Espace de Parole and the park project had a therapeutic value. But we, of course, never spoke of it using this term, therapeutic, because we were not a clinic and we didn’t want to have a visible clinical intervention as a goal. But the Espace de Parole has been used as a clinical tool, permitting normal contacts and exchanges and progressively reducing tensions and aggressions.
The project instilled pride in the park and belief in the park, and this feeling unites the people of Martissant and makes them proud of the place where they live. Many of them now know that, once the park is fully open, its benefits will be there for them to enjoy. Without the establishment of these connections, and the respect for Martissant Park that these encounters create, I think the project itself would be very difficult or impossible to realize.