The Coast Guard, a Rubber Dinghy, and Plucking “Fleeing Souls”

He was no more than 10 years old. His slender face was tilted skyward, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes as I told him I was going to remove the contents of his pockets. From the back pocket of his dirty jeans I took a yellow toothbrush. That can be filed down into a weapon, I told myself, and tossed it into the confiscation bag. From his front pockets I pulled out some pieces of hard candy and three condoms still in their gold foil wrapping. My gaze flew from my left hand holding candy, to my right holding condoms, to his young, silent, unquestioning face. Throwing the condoms into the ever-growing confiscation bag, I tried not to think of the reasons why a boy his age had them in the first place. None of the stories I told myself were good ones.

A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti.

A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti.

I told him he could keep his candy, and I shoved the jewel-colored pieces back into his pocket with my latex-gloved hand. Besides his baby face, the candy was the only thing that reflected his age, given his other confiscated possessions and the striped polo shirt and jeans that hung off him. I stared after him as our lone interpreter, who was himself Haitian born, escorted him away to ask him further questions. His parents weren’t in the group, nor did he know any of the hundreds of adults he was traveling with.

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My roommate and I were the only females among our shipmates that made up our 100-person crew. Perhaps because we seemed less intimidating, we were tasked with searching babies and children, and ensuring they were reunited with their loved ones. A little less than a week later, we delivered the little boy and the approximately 350 others we’d rescued from their unseaworthy vessel back to Haiti, where they were ferried to shore in small groups via multiple trips made by our small boats. Our ship remained at anchor in Port-au-Prince Harbor.

I never found out whether he was an orphan or how he found himself on the dilapidated sailboat in the first place. The vessel, with its rotten wood and grimy, torn sails flapping uselessly in the wind, also carried a small family that was offered asylum in a country other than the U.S., but they refused: “The United States or nothing.” They received the latter, and I thought of how reckless a decision this was on their part. Any place had to be better than Haiti if escaping on that near-shipwreck of a boat seemed their only option.

We would remain at anchor for days in the often breezeless Port-au-Prince Harbor as a security presence, the constant, putrid odor of burning rubber, dirt, and garbage coming from land permeating all corners of the ship and our clothes. With not much to do and anchored with nowhere to go, I had too much time to think about what all those people we had taken care of for days were doing now. A part of me was happy not to be patrolling the Caribbean Sea searching for more migrants to return.

Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation.

Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation.

I’d joined the nation’s oldest seagoing service because its primary mission is saving lives. My first tour as an officer in the Coast Guard was on a 270-foot cutter, a ship that conducted search and rescue missions and law enforcement operations, narcotic and migrant interdiction. Though the drug traffickers eluded us, we did interdict a lot of migrants. Most were Haitians fleeing the deplorable human rights conditions, police violence, and unrest that began under the rule of Haiti’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and that continued even after he resigned and fled to exile in February 2004. Some of the migrants we picked up were Cuban nationals fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist rule, as thousands and thousands had done in the decades since he’d initially come to power. Each time we’d return migrants to the countries they’d been fleeing, I wondered what might happen to them. Haitians walked up the shore back into their chaotic and crumbled city, as if no one realized they were ever gone. Cuba welcomed home its fleeing migrants with fear and implied threats of violence.

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“Socialismo o Muerte”—Socialism or Death—graced the cracked concrete sea wall in bright red and blue graffiti as our patrol boat entered the small canal to Bahia de Cabanas. At the territorial sea line, a drab, gray Cuban Navy patrol boat met us to escort our ship into Cuban waters. We motored along at a few knots, maintaining a courteous speed so as not to create a wake that would bounce between the maze of green, tangled mangroves lining the canal. The blue-mirrored lenses of my silver Oakleys hid my watchful eyes. We kept watch on our passengers sitting on the deck, facing aft so they couldn’t see where we were going, to make sure they didn’t jump overboard in one last attempt to escape. I’ve wondered how many of them already knew where they were, how many of them had been through this same exercise with us before. As we got closer to mooring, I tried to eavesdrop on their whispered Spanish but couldn’t understand much. The captain maneuvered the ship alongside a cement slab that could barely be called a pier, and on it waited a military-style van manned by two uniformed Cuban men holding AK-47s.

The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck.

The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck.

“We see again, gracias,” the migrants said in a jumble of two languages, laughing slightly, as they disembarked our boat and walked toward the men with guns. What happens to them, I wondered, after they get into the van? I wonder today if they’re still alive, and if they got a chance to try again as they said they would.

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We had plucked these fleeing souls from the overpacked sailboat that seemed on the verge of breaking and delivered them right back to the hell they’d tried to escape and to an unknown fate. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to want simple freedoms so much that I would get on some scrap of material—a rubber dinghy, a vessel made of empty plastic gasoline cans screwed together, anything that appears it can float—with nothing more than a phone number in my pocket to bob around on the vast, unforgiving sea with no shelter from the elements, hoping that the currents eventually would bring me to the U.S. How bad, I wondered, would your life have to be that you would take such a chance?

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Sarah Holzhalb

Sarah Holzhalb was a Coast Guard officer from 2002-2007, serving both afloat and ashore tours. She received her B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.P.S. from the George Washington University. Sarah works for Team RWB, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. She lives in Louisiana and enjoys reading, running trails, and being outdoors with her family.

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