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Sister Simone: Eulogy for a Haitian Heroine

By Beverly Bell

On this International Women’s Day, we rerun a 2005 piece on one of our greatest heroines, Marie Simone Alexandre. Though she died eight years ago, her life and message remain as powerful and inspirational today as any we know. 

“It was thanks to God and Sister Simone.” I heard this over and over in the mid-1990s as I was interviewing rape survivors in one of Port-au-Prince’s shantytowns. The women were battling the devastating effects of rape, employed as a weapon of war by one in a decades-long series of U.S.-backed regimes.[i] My question to these women, which so often invoked Simone’s name, was “From where have you found the strength to go on?”

I resolved to meet this force whose name was regularly uttered next to God’s. When I did, I was – like the rape survivors – utterly inspired. Our close personal and political relationship lasted for more than a decade until June 29, 2005, when she slipped away from a coma after her third operation for a large brain tumor.

It turns out Simone and I had had a relationship long before we met, though each had been faceless and nameless to the other. That relationship had been forged during the years of the 1991-94 coup d’état against Haiti’s first-ever democratically elected president. My end of our partnership involved generating broad publicity and international pressure against the rape, as well as the other crimes of the illegal regime. Many of the chilling testimonies and statistics I used had been faxed out of Haiti under cover of night from constantly changing underground locations. And the origin of much of that information, I learned years later, was Simone. She had gathered it at tremendous risk to her life, venturing where all others feared to tread.

Simone told me in an interview for the book Walking on Fire, where she appeared under her chosen nom de guerre Louise Monfils: “I gathered information from many women, house after house. The [women] trusted me so much that if they learned of another woman, they would bring that woman to me. I couldn’t write anything, absolutely nothing, in front of them. My head had to be clear. When five or ten people were telling me the story of their rapes, I had to remember all the details. As soon as I got on the road, I’d look for a place I could stop. I’d sit down and write everything the women told me. Cheri, sweetheart, that was very difficult work, but I had to do it.”[ii]

Simone was not only a front-line human rights worker, she was also a self-taught therapist. It was easy to see why many survivors cited her as one of their two fonts of healing. In the evocative high theatric which she always used, she described how a woman “would start to cry. She’d put her head on my shoulder and cry and I’d rub her back. I’d say, ‘You shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s those guys who should be ashamed! They’re savages. Only beasts could do such a horrid act.’ I’d tell her, ‘Love is something too good, too precious, for you to feel ashamed when you’ve been a victim.’ I’d tell her not to cry because we’re there for her. We’re there!”

Here, then, would come her role as a tireless political organizer, helping the women form grassroots groups. She said, “Meeting with them as victims of rape wasn’t enough. When we finished taking their testimony, we needed to get them together and form a women’s organization. We gave them support and helped them understand their rights. Also, we wanted to help these women be the owners of their bodies. Nobody else can have authority over them. [cont’d.]

CommunityMy FDL

Sister Simone: Eulogy for a Haitian Heroine

By Beverly Bell

March 8, 2013

On this International Women’s Day, we rerun a 2005 piece on one of our greatest heroines, Marie Simone Alexandre. Though she died eight years ago, her life and message remain as powerful and inspirational today as any we know. 

“It was thanks to God and Sister Simone.” I heard this over and over in the mid-1990s as I was interviewing rape survivors in one of Port-au-Prince’s shantytowns. The women were battling the devastating effects of rape, employed as a weapon of war by one in a decades-long series of U.S.-backed regimes.[i] My question to these women, which so often invoked Simone’s name, was “From where have you found the strength to go on?”

I resolved to meet this force whose name was regularly uttered next to God’s. When I did, I was – like the rape survivors – utterly inspired. Our close personal and political relationship lasted for more than a decade until June 29, 2005, when she slipped away from a coma after her third operation for a large brain tumor.

It turns out Simone and I had had a relationship long before we met, though each had been faceless and nameless to the other. That relationship had been forged during the years of the 1991-94 coup d’état against Haiti’s first-ever democratically elected president. My end of our partnership involved generating broad publicity and international pressure against the rape, as well as the other crimes of the illegal regime. Many of the chilling testimonies and statistics I used had been faxed out of Haiti under cover of night from constantly changing underground locations. And the origin of much of that information, I learned years later, was Simone. She had gathered it at tremendous risk to her life, venturing where all others feared to tread.

Simone told me in an interview for the book Walking on Fire, where she appeared under her chosen nom de guerre Louise Monfils: “I gathered information from many women, house after house. The [women] trusted me so much that if they learned of another woman, they would bring that woman to me. I couldn’t write anything, absolutely nothing, in front of them. My head had to be clear. When five or ten people were telling me the story of their rapes, I had to remember all the details. As soon as I got on the road, I’d look for a place I could stop. I’d sit down and write everything the women told me. Cheri, sweetheart, that was very difficult work, but I had to do it.”[ii]

Simone was not only a front-line human rights worker, she was also a self-taught therapist. It was easy to see why many survivors cited her as one of their two fonts of healing. In the evocative high theatric which she always used, she described how a woman “would start to cry. She’d put her head on my shoulder and cry and I’d rub her back. I’d say, ‘You shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s those guys who should be ashamed! They’re savages. Only beasts could do such a horrid act.’ I’d tell her, ‘Love is something too good, too precious, for you to feel ashamed when you’ve been a victim.’ I’d tell her not to cry because we’re there for her. We’re there!”

Here, then, would come her role as a tireless political organizer, helping the women form grassroots groups. She said, “Meeting with them as victims of rape wasn’t enough. When we finished taking their testimony, we needed to get them together and form a women’s organization. We gave them support and helped them understand their rights. Also, we wanted to help these women be the owners of their bodies. Nobody else can have authority over them.

Cheri, I’m telling you: during those years of hell, people disappeared. And if someone talked, the attackers would beat them, take them away, kill them. The rapists always said to the women, ‘Don’t you go tell the radio station about this or we’ll come back and kill you.’ And I recorded all this information in a notebook.

“I could feel good during the day, but when the night came, I had trouble. I tell you, whenever I heard the noise of a straw breaking in the yard or a dog barking, I sat up in bed and lit a cigarette. I was shaking, I was so scared.”

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