This story was first published on January 2, 2008.
Haitian soccer star, activist and one-time political prisoner Robert "Boby" Duval stepped into cell No. 10, looked around and vowed not to break down. The tears came anyway.
"The hardest part was the anguish over the uncertainty; not knowing whether today you will live or die, " said Duval, recalling the hellish months during the Duvalier dictatorship that he spent in the 5-foot-by-8-foot cell in military barracks just steps from the presidential palace. "It was a torture chamber."
It is those horrible memories of Haiti's oppressive past that President René Préval wants to keep alive by turning the Casernes Dessalines into a museum -- not only to preserve history but to counter the wave of nostalgia sweeping the nation, especially its youth, for "the good old days." The subject of dinner parties and street conversations, the nostalgia is rooted in the belief that life was better under the father-son dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier from 1957 to 1986. There were jobs. There were scholarships to French universities. There was electricity.
"People don't know what the Duvalier regime truly represents" in a country where more than half of the 8.5 million citizens are 25 and younger, Préval told The Miami Herald.
The Duvaliers are notorious for one of the bloodiest dictatorships in the hemisphere, a dynasty that tortured and killed thousands of dissidents, stole massively from government coffers and forced the separation of families through expulsions.
"The day Jean-Claude Duvalier was leaving the country [in 1986] . . . a young person who is 20 years old today doesn't remember the significance of that moment, " Préval said. "All they [are told] is there was peace back then, but they don't know the price of that peace."
Unlike South Africa, Peru, El Salvador and other nations that have emerged from bloody conflicts, there has been no attempt at truth and reconciliation in Haiti. No trials for atrocities. No tallies of the dead. No clearing of the past.
"In the Protestant faith, when people convert, they speak. They talk to remove all of their sins from their conscience. That is what we need, " says Préval. Instead, he said, in Haiti victims are now living next to their victimizers and the abusers have even run for elected office. Among last year's presidential hopefuls: Franck Romain, a top Duvalier official with close ties to the feared Tonton Macoutes and alleged planner of a 1988 attack on former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's church that left 12 dead.
"That shouldn't be possible, " Préval said of Romain's presidential bid.
The sprawling Casernes Dessalines was built in 1912 to house military guards for the adjoining presidential palace. Over the next decades it became the place from which powerful army leaders controlled the presidency, and later the headquarters of the Duvaliers' notorious secret police.
RESCUED BY CARTER
Duval spent eight months in the barracks cells before U.S. President Jimmy Carter won his release -- and those of 105 other political prisoners -- on Sept. 21, 1977.
On Duval's first visit to the Dessalines barracks in 30 years, he walked down one of its corridors on a recent Sunday afternoon, pointing out the offices where prisoners were hogtied, beaten, and tortured. He recalled the chief interrogator, secret police chief Jean Valmé. And he remembered his private hell.