AU Family Serves God in Haiti

Thu, 2012-07-26 11:16 -- univcomm
As Haitian rebels set their country ablaze, government loyalists stood by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As the United States sent Marines to protect the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government struggled to find a solution to the chaos. And, as foreigners fled or were hauled out of the country, one former Anderson family stayed on to continue its missionary work with the Haitian natives. ]

John and Jodie Ackerman, both Anderson University alumni, have been living in Haiti for 18 years as Church of God missionaries. John is a registered nurse, providing locals with medical care. Jodie is a teacher at the Christian school that their 12-year-old daughter Jessica attends. Meanwhile, their 18-year-old daughter Jacqueline is a freshman at Anderson University.

John Ackerman, 56, feels that the general population in Haiti doesn't keep up with the political problems and therefore doesn't have a clear understanding of what is happening to their nation.

"They don't understand, but there is a fright," he said, noting that the fear can be felt in the air and can be seen in the people's eyes and actions.

One day in February, Mr. Ackerman was driving to a clinic in the provinces when he came across a roadblock made up of carcasses of old cars, burning tires, cement blocks, and rocks.

"A five- to seven-mile part of the drive was roadblocks constantly," he said.

The roadblocks were set up by police as a way to slow down and keep away the violent rebels who overtook Cap-Haitien.

"They are scared stiff that these people will come down from the north. They don't want them coming in. It's a fear thing," Mr. Ackerman said. "Most people see them as evil.

"Now that they have taken Cap-Haitien, it is certainly beyond small rebellions. Two-hundred military people take the police department there, they free up the whole city, and the looting starts. They get rid of all the police and open the jail gates, plus they are creating a laissez-faire government. People take what they can take.

"It's a corrupt situation. I'm not saying that all Haitians are evil types, but there is certainly a percentage that takes advantage.

"We are here for the good of the people. We love the place; we love the people, but they have a lot of growing to do, maturing, let's call it."

The Ackermans, who live in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, don't get swept up in the frequent demonstrations that take place downtown.

"We try to remain neutral," Ackerman said. "My job here is to be a person of Christ, not a political pusher one way or the another."

Donald Boggs, chair of the communications department at Anderson University, visited the Ackermans in January, and said that although the chaos didn't scare him, he said there are certain things you must do to conserve your safety.

"It's a matter of being conscious of the environment and the context of the place you're in," Boggs said. "When you are driving down the road and see burning tires up ahead, you know to avoid going that way. If you see a struggle or a fight in the street you back off."

Mr. Ackerman said the rebels are willing to kill other Haitians, but don't seem to kill foreigners, or blondes, as they are referred to, unless to make a statement or by mistake.

"I feel I could get hurt, but I have a government behind me that is strong enough that it scares them."

The Ackerman family considers the current political upheaval almost routine.

"We really don't feel any fear yet," Mr. Ackerman said. "We've been in some rough times here. We've lived through 10 coups."

He does admit, though, that the current situation in Haiti is a lot more desperate than in the past.

"This is more intense than a lot of them. I never heard a president say, 'I will die before I leave.' That is an awfully, awfully strong and strange statement and (the rebels) are not used to that. They realize they have to kill him or leave him in office."

Ackerman said that in the past, all rebels needed to do was put a gun to a president's head and tell him to get out, and he would. But Aristide didn't budge that easily.

Ackerman feels that the problem lies in the fact that none of the factions in Haiti understand the meaning of a democracy.

"Yes, you are allowed to criticize the government, but they are calling for the overthrow of the government," he said. "If they were to do that in Washington, D.C., and ask not only for Bush to step down, and say that if he didn't they would throw him out, the National Guard would step in and throw them out."

Both Mr. Ackerman and Boggs feel that, although the country is deteriorating in some ways because of the latest rebellions, Haitians have had more freedom since Aristide was elected in 1990. Before Aristide took over, Haitians had to live under the iron rule of dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," until 1986.

Boggs has been traveling to Haiti since 1982, and has seen how the country has changed over the years under different leadership.

Under Duvalier's dictatorship, Boggs said "the country, superficially, was in a considerably better shape than it is today. Sugar cane was being grown, roads were in pretty good condition, but personal freedoms were ruthlessly limited."

Mr. Ackerman agrees that under democratically elected President Aristide, people were able to speak up more, but there is still a lot of growing to do before it becomes a real democracy.

"I see what's going on as a step up," Ackerman said. "I've never seen people where they were allowed to criticize the government. Now they are allowed to.

"But, there is a lack of understanding of democracy here. It takes a long time to develop. American's don't tend to be understanding of that," he said. "(Democracy) won't happen overnight. It will need a helping hand."

---MELANIE D. HAYES is a reporter for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin. Story reprinted with permission.