Two loud knocks on their wooden hotel room doors at 2:30 a.m. alerted 16 Haitian-American tourists visiting their native country that it was time to pack up and go.
Their trip had begun seven days prior in Cap-Haitien, in Haiti’s north, and had abruptly halted in Marigot, a rural town an hour’s drive outside of Jacmel in the south, after violent protests erupted nationwide in reaction to the government’s gas price hike.
Under the cover of darkness, they grabbed their bags and hustled onto the tour bus waiting for them in the Buccanier Beach Club hotel parking lot. An armed guard stood at the locked metal gate, ready to let them out.
Joining them in SUVs were a Marigot hotel owner, her granddaughter and a group of 10 Haitian-Americans from upstate New York who had been unable to make it through to Port-au-Prince after several attempts. They thought they had a better chance of making it out in a caravan.
“Every day we’ve been making the journey down the street to see if we’ll be able to get closer to Port-au-Prince, but we always have to make a U-turn” to come back to the hotel, explained Marie, who had wanted to show her children and their cousins the positive side of Haiti. The violent protests had stranded them in Jacmel, then Leogane.
“At one juncture one of the guys told the driver, ‘If you guys proceed, we’re gonna just destroy the car with rocks,’ ” she said, referring to a thug.
Time for prayer
A collective prayer was said as the group left the hotel and rolled onto a dusty dirt road that led to the main asphalt road, lit by sporadic street lights. On the main road, four men stood next to a pickup. Hearts raced as the bus passed a young man holding a large rifle in plain sight. Inside the bus, silence, anxiety, then relief.
The armed man did not react as the caravan rushed past him, then left Leogane and headed toward Gressiers. The previous afternoon, the group had encountered armed thugs and a makeshift roadblock consisting of two large flatbed trucks parked across the highway, preventing any cars from going through.
As there is only one highway leading to the capital to the north, the group had been forced to turn around and seek shelter in Leogane, when it became clear the armed thugs were prepared to shoot anyone who tried to cross. They also made it clear they were not interested in taking money. It was a bold power play made a few meters from the local police station, whose officers had not been paid for several months, and who were either unable or unwilling to neutralize the thugs.
By 3:45 a.m., the bus approached the location of the barricade that had sidelined the tourists the day before, and everyone was relieved to see the flatbed trucks parked by the side of the road. The driver, Robenson, stepped on the gas. Five minutes later, fear struck again as a new barricade came into view, this time a white box truck was parked across the highway on the left, and two large rocks were piled up on the right. The road was impassable.
Ready to shoot?
It was impossible to tell whether there were armed thugs positioned under the truck or behind it, ready to shoot anyone who dared come close. The driver kept his distance and discussed options with his backup driver, Gesner, and the men on the bus. It was decided that Gesner would get off the bus and assess the risks of venturing forward. The bus kept its headlights on for safety and parked in front of a red metal gate.
Inside, each minute seemed like hours. Some of the tourists questioned the wisdom of staying on the highway and feared being targeted. Others asked for patience.
Outside, Gesner was joined by the SUV drivers as he sought solutions for lifting the roadblock. The hotel owner made a phone call to the police commissioner in Martissant, another troubled town where barricades had been successfully removed. The commissioner advised patience as he and his men made their way to clear the roadblock.
Fifteen tense minutes passed, then flashing blue and red lights were seen approaching the white truck. Gesner and the other drivers rushed to meet them as they collectively rolled the large rocks to the side of the road then ran back to their vehicles to make a run for it.
WATCH: From Inside the Tour Bus
After passing the barricade, they sped through Martissant, then Carrefour, which looked like a war zone. Makeshift roadblocks of rocks, tree branches and broken bottles peppered the street. A few people were walking around. Tires that had been set on fire were still smoldering.
‘We were lucky’
Inside the bus, there was applause for Gesner’s bravery and questions about what he saw out there.
“We were lucky to have the police protecting us, and helping us lift the heavy rocks off the road and dumping them into a nearby ravine,” he said. “We saw some guys standing on the side of the road — very suspicious-looking — but we couldn’t tell for sure if they were the thugs who had put up the roadblock.”
Gesner explained that there was a rush to get out of there for fear that a new group of thugs would appear and try to prevent the bus from going forward.
There was collective relief as hopes were restored that the group would make it to its destination this time.
As the tour bus rolled into Port-au-Prince at 5 a.m., the mood was more upbeat and the discussion shifted to making hotel accommodations and booking flights back to the United States.
Asked how she felt about the protests and barricades that had ruined her travel plans, Marie responded, “It’s very sad, because to me, we’re just going backwards. … We collectively did not learn anything from the ’86 dechouquage [which overthrew dictator Jean Claude Duvalier].”