(New York Times) – In early 2006, my first long-term overseas posting as a journalist took me to the Dominican Republic. From my new home in Santo Domingo, I planned to write about tourism, baseball, corruption and drug trafficking, while working on my Spanish. If things went well, I figured, I might even get to cross the island of Hispaniola’s international border, into Haiti, whose chronic crises — including a recent coup d’état that had overthrown the president — drew more international interest.
To my surprise, I arrived in the midst of a crisis of the Dominicans’ own. Two dozen Haitian immigrants had suffocated to death in the back of a van headed toward Santo Domingo. Each year, thousands of Haitians venture east into the Dominican Republic in search of low-wage jobs in agriculture and construction and at the big all-inclusive resorts. The 69 migrants in the van paid about $70 each to be stuffed in like cattle, with no room to breathe. Dominican police officers learned of their deaths when the drivers began throwing bodies out of the van as it sped down the highway.
A couple of weeks after the van tragedy, with tensions over immigration running high, people in a central Dominican town burned the homes of Haitians and Dominican-born people of Haitian descent (the Dominican media and politicians tend to lump the two groups together, simply referring to both as haitianos). The arsonists were set off by rumors — never proven true — that a haitiano had raped a little girl. A major local paper headlined its story, “In Monte de la Jagua, They Don’t Want Haitianos.” The next day’s headline was more ominous: “Haitianos Disappear.” When I called the national police chief for comment, he wondered aloud if the victims had burned their own homes in preparation for leaving the country.