Jean Paul Renaud, a tall, gaunt Haitian, fidgeted uneasily in his chair and looked sideways out of the window rather than at me. I couldn’t help feeling there was something else behind his story. It was quite a story. In 1994 a military junta was running Haiti and hunting its enemies, the activist supporters of President Aristide whom it had ousted in a coup. The US offered to grant asylum to potential victims and accept them as refugees.
I came to Haiti to run the programme. In summer Renaud had applied for refuge, telling our interviewer in Port au Prince that he had been a peasant activist and had received death threats from the junta’s local thugs called Attachés. He feared for his life and that of his wife. When he came for the interview from his native place, Les Cayes, he was accompanied by his friend Michel Beauviel, who too had applied and was interviewed.
Beauviel turned up two weeks later to know the outcome and was told that his application was not approved, as the story of his activism in the villages did not tally with the known facts. He then produced a note from his fellow resident in Les Cayes, Renaud, requesting that any letter for Renaud should be handed over to Beauviel to be carried to him, as Renaud’s work would not let him travel to the capital for a while. He got the letter for Renaud.
Four months later Renaud was now sitting in my office telling me a strange story. Beauviel had opened the letter meant for Renaud and found that Renaud had been approved for refugee status and needed to proceed immediately to get his passport and medical clearance. He acted quickly. He erased his name from the rejection letter he had received, inserted Renaud’s name and delivered it to Renaud with great commiseration for his misfortune.
He added that he had to go to another town, Mirebalais, for some work and would not be back in Les Cayes for several days. He did not of course go to Mirebalais. He went to a good source for false identification papers, obtained a passport in the name of Renaud and the requisite medical certificate.
On the fifth day he was on a plane for Chicago as an international refugee. When Beauviel hadn’t returned to Les Cayes for months, and Renaud heard a rumour that he may have gone abroad, he was curious and came to check. I told him that, according to our records, a man of his name had left for the US. From the official photos, Renaud easily identified the impersonator as Beauviel. I would naturally have to act on the fraud and revoke the impersonator’s status. But I felt there was still some angle I had missed. “Tell me,” I asked, “why did you trust Renaud so much? After all, you authorised him to collect your official papers.”
“He was a close friend. We helped each other. He did the major part in concocting the detailed stories about our activism and political action in the villages.” So even his own story, which received approval, was a concoction! I was dumbfounded even before came the remarkable non-sequitur, “Poor chap, I even married his girlfriend.”
(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])