By Stephen Deal
With three traveling companions, we were nearing the end of a long drive from Santo Domingo (the capital of the Dominican Republic) to Dajabon on the Dominican border with Haiti. Our trip had been marked by delays: the morning rush-hour traffic as we left Santo Domingo, a major traffic tie-up at a toll booth where the electronic payment system was down, a herd of cows blocking the highway.
We thought the worst was behind us when we rounded a curve and came upon the scene of a recent truck accident. A large crane was just beginning to lift the container portion of a tractor-trailer out of a ravine. Both lanes of the 2-lane highway were blocked. We had no choice but to wait until the crane finished the job and the highway could be reopened.
Notwithstanding the midday heat and humidity, I decided to get out of our vehicle to stretch my legs. A small group of curious onlookers had already formed to watch as the crane went about its work.
Suddenly, an oddly-shaped white truck drove to the front of the line on our side of the accident site. At first, I only saw three men in the cab of the truck. My first thought was, “What makes them so special that they can go to the front of the line?”
When they got out, all three turned out to be Dominican immigration officials. In that moment, I realized that their vehicle was part of the fleet of vehicles used by Dominican immigration authorities to expel undocumented Haitians, or those suspected of being undocumented migrants, back into Haiti at border crossings such as Dajabon.
I decided to inspect the rear portion of their truck more closely. When I got to the back, I came face-to-face with the anguished, exhausted faces of men, women and children who had been packed into the truck’s cargo space. Inhumane doesn’t begin to describe the conditions in which they were being transported.
No one was seated, not even the children. They were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, so tightly that no one could move (or lose their balance). The only source of ventilation was the cage-like wiring across the rear of the vehicle. The people at the very back of that “mobile cage” could breathe, albeit with difficulty; those packed into the interior of the truck must have been suffering terribly from the heat and lack of oxygen.
Most of the motorists who had gotten out of their vehicles continued to pay more attention to the crane operation than the plight of the “human cargo” in the immigration vehicle, with one notable exception. There was a Dominican woman who was not going to stand idly by; she was determined to do something to alleviate their human suffering. I never got her name but I’m going to call her “Amparo”.
She began going vehicle-to-vehicle, knocking on car windows and asking motorists to donate whatever water they could. I went back to our vehicle and collected all the water bottles we had, full or not. The water bottles that the two of us collected weren’t enough for everyone in the cargo space of that truck but it was enough for those at the very back, including the children. Their parents thanked us.
“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Mt 10:42 – NIV)
It was evident that these detainees were not only dehydrated, but also hungry. “Amparo” and I decided to go back to the motorists in that line of cars to ask for food donations. As quickly as it began, however, this human drama ended. The crane finished its work, the highway was cleared, and traffic began to move again.
The first vehicle that got through was the immigration vehicle. In a half hour, maybe less, that truck would reach the Dominican-Haitian border at Dajabon to unload its human cargo and then return to Santo Domingo for another trip.
As Regional Representative for AMMPARO, there have been many occasions when I have witnessed the inhumane treatment of migrants by immigration authorities – along the U.S. southern border, along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, on the Colombian side of the Darien Gap.
Nevertheless, the image of this group of Haitians (and quite possibly the children of Haitian parents born in the Dominican Republic), crowded into the back of that truck, will remain with me for a long time. Thankfully, so will the spontaneous and compassionate response of the Dominican woman who was moved to action.