A wife and 23-month-old baby boy.
A mother, brother and cousin.
If they were your loved ones and they were suddenly gone, ripped from your arms and from your life, how would you feel?
If it were possible that their bodies could be housed in a trailer on your island but you cannot find out for sure over three months after you lost them, what would you do?
Could you lay your head down and sleep well at night knowing your baby, your spouse, your parent, your world is no more but you do not know where in the world they are now?
And if even one part of them is found, wouldn’t you want to give them a proper burial so that they can rest in peace?
Torment and anguish are the daily reality of hundreds of distressed and bereaved family members on and from Abaco who are not only victims of a killer named Dorian, but victims of inefficiencies and of inertia fueled partially by antipathy and base expediency.
Luckenson Monphete’s pain and despair were palatable as he described to Perspective the agony of going back and forth between Abaco and Nassau 13 times since Hurricane Dorian’s landfall back on September 1, desperate to find out whether the bodies of his wife Rona and his toddler Kayden have been recovered.
“We were swimming through the waters and I had my son on my shoulders and that’s when the tornadoes kicked in and we went in the air and that’s when I lost my wife and my son and I was in the waters looking for them,” he retold.
The husband and father of two sons was subsequently knocked unconscious and was found by residents before being airlifted to Nassau where he remained in hospital for two weeks, after which time he began his search for his family’s whereabouts.
“I’ve been to PMH (Princess Margaret Hospital) and they told me they cannot help me and I have to go to Marsh Harbour, and when I go to Marsh Harbour they tell me they cannot help me and they tell me to go to Nassau — 13 trips between Marsh Harbour and Nassau and I paid my own way to find my wife and my son’s body but it’s just spinning me like a yo-yo,” Monphete decried as he spoke to us from Abaco.
The former resident of the Pigeon Peas shantytown, who said he was born in The Bahamas, stressed that he wants only to bury his wife and child because he knows that if he was the one who had died, his wife would want to bury him.
Of the constant turnaround in Nassau and on Abaco that has often left him broken and in tears, he said, “Right now to tell you the truth, my sister, a human being is not supposed to be treated this way.
“To tell you the truth, if I had to see my wife and my son’s body at this point they might as well just shoot me because to see them in the condition they are probably in it would hurt me for the rest of my life.”
For a moment, we both fell silent as the weight of his sentiment reverberated a kind of misery few people in The Bahamas would have had the abject misfortune to experience prior to Dorian.
In the rubble, his son’s passport was recovered and he holds onto that as all he has left of his 23-month-old. His other son survived, having gone to stay with his wife’s mother prior to the storm.
“I just put everything in God’s hands because I cannot take it anymore,” Monphete said sullenly. “I just leave it to God.”
For Dana Agenor, who survived Dorian in an Abaco shelter, life after the presumed death of her father Daniel Agenor has been difficult.
“Life has been very tough,” she shared. “Other people have said that he died, so I don’t know if it’s true, but for sure the place he was living in The Mudd, I know for sure he couldn’t escape it.”
The grief-stricken mother of two said that according to residents, two large trailers fell on her father’s house, where he was at the time of the storm.
Speaking to us from the Kendal G. L. Isaacs shelter, Agenor said she gave information on her missing father to officials who visited the gymnasium and gave a DNA sample in early September, but that officials did not say what was to happen thereafter.
“Right now, I feel hopeless and right now mostly everybody in here is hopeless,” she conveyed. “My daddy was my everything; I have two kids and my daddy was the one who was helping me with the kids.
“I am still thinking on what to do with my life now. I really don’t have a hope yet.”
“A decision has to be made”
Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands recently told reporters there are approximately 50 unidentified bodies in a refrigerated trailer on Abaco and that government is considering utilizing a third-party intermediary to work with Haitian nationals who are in search of their loved ones.
When we asked Sands this weekend why it has taken the government this long to expedite the processes that would enable closure and the release of remains where possible, he said, “The problem honestly has been the lethargic availability of information.
“I have been asking for information in order to determine what the problem is,” Sands explained. “I finally got the information last week and we engaged the International Red Cross in terms of what the best practices are.”
Those best practices, he advised, are for governments to enable migrants to have the opportunity to identify their loved ones and receive their remains without fear of arrest.
Sands continued, “Experience in other jurisdictions where you have large migrant populations is that there is some degree of reticence particularly when you have this very anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that the best way to get people to come forward is if they do not feel that by coming forward they are going to jeopardize themselves.”
In Dorian’s immediate aftermath, the government announced that repatriations would be temporarily halted as a humanitarian gesture, but acting on dissent on the part of New Providence residents angry about Haitian evacuees at the island’s shelters, the government switched its position.
The switch not only impacted undocumented migrants but documented migrants who were told to leave the country even if they had a valid work permit — a call that was not made to expatriate workers who also would have lost their jobs due to the same storm damage.
Attorney General Carl Bethel originally said work permit holders who lost their job as a result of storm damage need to go home, but last week urged migrants to come forward to report missing loved ones — a request that is unlikely to be acceded to given the government’s own prior pronouncements.
Of the ability to work with all storm victims in the identification process regardless of one’s immigration status, Sands reminded that it is not a decision the Ministry of Health can make on its own.
“That is a cross-ministerial matter and it is certainly something that we have to make a decision about, and make no bones about it, there will be controversy because you are now going to have people who will say that you are providing a means for illegal immigrants to move in your country without being brought to the immigration authorities,” he acknowledged.
“Well you can’t have it both ways,” Sands argued. “If this is an approach that will solve a problem which is real, then a decision has to be made; either we are going to do it or we are not going to do it.”
The latter would be to leave the recovered remains of human beings in limbo, and their families in a never-ending state of uncertainty and trauma, something no one should suffer in the aftermath of a natural disaster regardless of what one’s immigration status might be.
National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) missing persons forms submitted to the agency on September 5 and September 16 by representatives of Human Rights Bahamas and provided to Perspective by those representatives list 154 Abaco residents as missing by relatives.
Seven of those are children no older than 10.
As a contrast to the circumstances facing Abaco families, the process of identification and communication on Grand Bahama where 11 storm deaths are confirmed by police thus far, has been far less complicated.
Police on the island have been cooperative and forthcoming with us on the process of search and recovery, DNA sampling from immediate next of kin and on the identities of the deceased — all of whom have been released to their families with the exception of the remains of two victims pending positive DNA identification.
The island’s confirmed storm deaths are Agno Daniel and his wife La’Travalia Williams-Daniel of Freeport; Marvin Rolle, High Rock; Freeman Carey, Freetown; Daisy Cartwright, Freeport; Catherine Armstrong, Freeport; Irene Saunders, Freeport; Clarissa Collie, Freeport; and Kenel Jospeh, East End, according to Superintendent Brian Rolle, head of the island’s Central Detective Unit (CDU).
Twenty-two remain missing on Grand Bahama.
“Daddy ain’t coming no more”
Michael Dawkins Jr. recently told this newspaper that he is willing to take matters into his own hands to begin the search for his father, Michael Dawkins Sr, who reportedly died after a piece of wood struck him on the head as he tried to escape his home in rising floodwaters with his girlfriend.
Meantime, Sitha Silien, who spoke to this newspaper back in September, spoke to Perspective last week on the ongoing torture of not having the remains of her mother, Ivitha Charles, brother Siverlien Silien and her cousin who died in the storm.
Silien, who says she was born in The Bahamas, told of the tragic experience of not being able to see her mother and her only brother anymore after locating their decomposing remains in the days after Dorian’s passage.
She believes, based on what she was told, that the remains of her mother, who died in her arms, and her brother are in the Abaco trailer.
“I don’t know how I am living,” she responded following a long, pensive pause.
“I do not want to live my life with my mummy’s body there in the trailer and with me to be lying right here in the shelter and see myself waking and moving and my mummy’s body and my brother is in that trailer.”
Silien, who now has her deceased brother’s two-year-old son, also expressed a feeling of hopelessness, indicating that efforts to receive her family’s remains have been fruitless to date.
“When I went to the CDU on September 9 they told me I have to report them missing,” she said as her voice cracked with emotion.
“People are trying to make it seem that I am crazy,” Silien maintained, voice quivering.
“I know that missing is the word they use but I cannot make it come out of my mouth because it does not feel right on the inside for me to say because missing is something you can’t find but I found them; that is not the word for me.”
She keeps her mother’s necklace she found on her remains as a keepsake and recalls the number on her mother’s body bag as “178L”.
“My nephew sits there and he saw my mummy in the water and he asked, ‘Grammy sleeping? Grammy ain’t coming back home? Where is daddy? Daddy gone buy juice from the shop?’
“I tell him, ‘Yes, daddy gone to buy juice but daddy ain’t coming no more.’”