With a name that means Fort Sunday, you might think that Fort Dimanche was some kind of family weekend retreat. But, er, no, that was not the case at all. Fort Dimanche has gone down in history as Haiti’s most notorious prison. Built during a public works campaign in the 1930s, the prison was at one point used as a questioning site during the presidency of Francois Duvalier, before turning into a full-pledged prison.
But it was no ordinary prison. Not like Attica or Saint Quentin where court of law-convicted criminals were thrown in; Fort Dimanche held prisoners who were condemned without a trial. In the book Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide by Christopher Catherwood, Leslie Alan Horvitz assert that the people occupying the prison’s cells were thrown in there by the Tonton Macoutes Haiti’s secret police agents:
“They proceeded to round up Duvalier’s enemies, among them politicians, journalists, and radio station owners, where they were tortured to death.”
U.S. journalist Thomas Sanchez summed up the place: “Most men do not leave Fort Dimanche; if they are not beaten to death they die of tuberculosis, dysentery, or having the blood sucked from them by scores of vermin.”
According to Haiti historian Elizabeth Abbott, some of the male prisoners sometimes were subject to sexual torture by Rosalie Bosquet, also known as Madame Max Adolphe, the prison warden.
A former prisoner referred to as Bobbie in an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1987, described the journey of the prisoners in these words: “They send you there to die, to live until you die in a thirteen-by-fourteen-foot room with forty people, all day, all night. You [go to the bathroom] in a five-gallon can.”
The prison housed prisoners, staring in the 1950s, and well into the late 80s.
In 1973, three Haitian nationals who had relatives and friends in the prison, kidnapped U.S. ambassador Clinton Knox, and requested the release of 31 prisoners being held at Fort Dimanche as ransom for his release. Eventually 12 were released and flown to Mexico, but the prison continued to flourish, despite the activism of organizations like Amnesty International and others.
A 1975 report in Worldview, a publication of the Council on Religion and International Affairs, reported that young Haitians accused of being Communists were often dragged to the prison for immediate or later execution, their bodies buried in the courtyard, or even at times displayed publicly as a “lesson” for others.
In the late 1970s, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published a book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism in which they report having been told that the prison was going to be renovated and modernized, but that was not to be.
People continued to be thrown in there without a trial. An individual would be arrested, and no accounts would be given for the reason for their arrest. Families were not able to see their incarcerated loved one. If you have ever seen Raoul Peck’s film L’Homme Sur Les Quais to get an idea of what Haiti was like in the 1960s, in particular.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were some reports (including one by the journalist Richard R. Hofstetter and a 1980 article in Newsweek magazine) that Haitians who had tried to flee Haiti by boat, and were deported, were thrown inside the prison upon arrival in Haiti. Several deportees and immigrants interviewed for the book The Tarnished door: the New Immigrants and the Transformation of America, published in 1983 profess to have been subjected to, or had relatives who had been subjected to Fort Dimanche imprisonment post-deportation.
Thousands were held prisoner at Fort Dimanche, some whose names are known, others whose first name had survived. A log was kept of the prisoners, but it doesn’t include all their names.
Two months after the February 1986 departure of Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, protestors held a march in front of the prison to commemorate the death of the thousands who had died in Fort Dimanche. A massacred ensued.
Today, the site where the prison once stood is an unofficial memorial.
The video above is part of a news report about the ruins of Fort Dimache.
This is part 2.
Patrick Lemoine, one of the few—one of the very few prisoners—to have survived the horrendous insitution—wrote a memoir, and maintains a website Fordi 9, where the memories of the known victims of Fort Dimanche prison are kept alive. Visit it here.