On a Bahamian island where the majority of births were to Haitian mothers, a story about the thin line between hope and tragedy that Caribbean migrants navigate
Part II of Surviving in The Bahamas.
Erode has an eager laugh, which he inherited from his mother, Leonie Joseph.
“He was always a gentle and good boy,” Leonie said, causing Erode to blush as he sits on the steps below her feet.
Leonie came to the Bahamas in 1979 from Île de la Tortue, Haiti to join her sisters. She secured a permit to work at Bahamas Star Farms in Treasure Cay, which exported limes, grapefruits, oranges and lemons to Florida until the early 2000s, when citrus canker disease forced the industry to shut down. Erode sleeps in the living room of his mother’s well-kept, one-bedroom clapboard home, which is built on a concrete foundation without access to public utilities in the dusty, sun drenched shantytown called the Sand Banks.
The Bahamian economy has long depended on both legal and undocumented Haitian migrants for cheap, semi-skilled labor. Erode is Leonie’s baby boy, the last of 11 children, nine of whom were born in the Bahamas. She used her familial connection to the captain of the boat, a known human smuggler with many successful trips under his belt, to reserve a seat for Erode for the trip he survived in June. That seat was quite a gift — the going rate for such a trip is $5,000-$10,000 per person — paid to the captain in cash.
This is as much a story about Leonie as it is about Erode. It is the story of a mother’s love and desire for her child to succeed, to give him the opportunity she did not have for herself.
“In America when children born, they give you citizenship. I don’t see what the difference between Erode and a Bahamian is. I sent him there [to America on the boat] so he could get a better life,” she said.
Erode’s oldest sister broke the news to Leonie that the boat had sunk after Bahamian investigators came to Sand Banks with another survivor.
“I cry, my son die,” she recalls raising her arms in the air.
And when Erode finally returned home after his ordeal, Leonie fainted on the floor. Erode rubbed alcohol near her nose to wake her.
“I felt good to see him, but I was still sad because I had nine family members on the boat,” she said as her voice cracked, fighting back tears.
Murderer or Moses?
A smuggler loads his boat with migrants. Tragedy strikes and he is a murderer. If he makes it to America, to his passengers and their families he is Moses. Bahamian police allege that Chancellier Baptiste, 52, was the captain of the ill-fated speedboat named Glory Time. The boat had 28 passengers, some Haitian-Bahamian and others recently arrived from Haiti. Tucked away in the cabin below deck were seven children, all enrolled in Bahamian primary schools: siblings Alonzo Joseph, 8, Jermaine Joseph, 9, and Chrisentie Joseph, 7; and Baptiste’s two young daughters Evensky Baptise, 9, and Kerdley Baptiste, 7. Baptiste’s teenage daughters, Elvianna Baptiste,14, Shana Baptiste, 18, and Jessica Baptiste, 16, were topside. Shana and Jessica were at the bow making jokes with Erode while Elvianna was at the helm with her dad. Erode also had another cousin on the deck, Isomona Pierre, the mother of Alzono, Jermaine, and Christentie.
After a couple of hours the boat began taking on water in rough seas and the engines began to fail. The boat capsized, leaving the children trapped in the submerged cabin and dumping everyone else overboard. Erode fought over and over to keep Isomona above the surface, only to have the ocean sweep her away forever. Shana, who could swim, drowned while trying to save her sisters. Erode said that when Baptiste saw Elvianna’s lifeless body, he fainted and was pulled to the surface by another survivor.
Erode grew up with his cousins like siblings — going to school together, bickering, laughing, teasing, and planning their future in the promised land together. When Erode finally swam away from the capsized vessel, he knew not only that the older girls were lost, but also that his younger cousins were already dead, stuck in the submerged cabin and drowned as soon as the boat went under.
“Things I don’t even see in my dreams I was seeing in reality. All I was saying is ‘I’m my mommy last boy and this happening to me. How the last could be dead?’” Erode said.
Captain Baptiste is wanted by the Bahamian police and is still at large. Erode said he doesn’t know Baptiste’s whereabouts. While a local police officer told me Baptiste has gone back to Haiti, there are rumors circulating that he is hiding somewhere in North Abaco, afraid to face the families of the victims in Haiti. Local police Superintendent Noel Curry wouldn’t speak to me without approval from the Minister of National Security, but acknowledged that he oversaw the investigation of the tragedy. So far, Alphonso Edner, 43, a friend of the captain who helped load the boat, has been arrested and charged with 11 counts of crime, from abetment to manslaughter. The bodies of ten passengers were never found.
Erode became a witness for Bahamian investigators and told them the story of the ill-fated trip once he reached shore. He was asked to accompany the Royal Bahamas Defense Force Marines to locate the Glory Time to retrieve the bodies. When the marines arrived at the vessel, they asked Erode to dive in with them. When he refused, they dove in to begin their search and left him alone on the deck. Erode’s conscience wouldn’t let him stand there for long and he dove into the ocean that nearly took his life, joining the marines. The marines located the children and brought their bodies to the surface. According to Erode, they wept as they saw the children — the loss of life fully revealed. Erode said that the marines blamed Baptiste for not calling them for help, but they were also outraged at the Bahamian government for putting Haitian-Bahamians in this predicament.
When the smuggler’s boat capsized, Erode had a decision to make. He could swim to Hawksbill Cay with Baptiste and six other survivors, or swim toward a telephone tower marking the settlement of Fox Town in North Abaco. The distance to Fox Town was much further and he would have to swim alone at night in shark-infested waters. The decision to Erode was clear. He followed his heart and swam for hours towards shore.
“I just wanted to go home,” he said.
Since his ordeal, Erode has decided he would work to get his Bahamian citizenship and then travel to Florida and New York. He insisted that others like him will continue to take a chance on the boats and says the frequency in leaving for Florida has not diminished.
“I will tell them if they have kids or anything, ‘don’t let them kids go’, but if it’s a person who trying to earn his money, I can’t stop him because you know, that’s his business,” he said.
The sea has had its fill of strong-willed Haitians. Thankfully, it didn’t take Erode. He made it home.
Gustavius Smith is a Bahamian-American filmmaker who’s mission is to reframe the narrative of the Carribean and its people. He is currently developing his first feature film “Heading North”. For more information, visit headingnorthmovie.com.
The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Haitian Times.