DAJABÓN, Dominican Republic -- Seventy-five years ago, this border town, separated from Haiti by the ominously named Massacre River, was the center of a killing field.
On orders from dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, thousands of Haitians – many born in the Dominican Republic -- living in the area were rounded up and killed; hacked to death with machetes and stabbed with bayonets.
What became known as the Parsley Massacre — or simply el corte (the cutting) — forever altered Haitian-Dominican relations, which remain tense today. Despite its significance, the massacre became little more than a historical footnote.
Standing on the banks of the Massacre River, looking across its shallow waters to Haiti on Thursday night, hundreds of Dominicans, led by activists and scholars, sought to reclaim the forgotten tragedy.
“Generally, it’s not something that we talk a lot about on our side of the border. I think there are so many challenges in Haiti right now as well as in the recent past that sometimes it is difficult for people to look back and ponder long ago horrors,” said Haitian-American author and Miami resident Edwidge Danticat, whose 1998 fictional novel The Farming of Bones is based on the massacre.
“This all started,” Danticat said of this week’s commemoration, “with people from inside and outside the island, people who’ve had an opportunity to get to know each other well enough to acknowledge our common humanity and say that we must, in some way, pause to remember this moment, wherever we are, however, we can.”
The initiative to remember the horrors that occurred here, organized by members of the Dominican diaspora living in the United States, began Thursday with a Catholic Mass and a candlelight vigil in which participants walked to the river’s edge.
Organizers cleaned up a park in the Haitian border town of Ouanamintheand planted trees on Friday. They plan to hold a roundtable community discussion about the massacre on Saturday.
“This was a crime against humanity. And it’s important that people know its significance,” said Edward Paulino, assistant professor of history at the City University of New York (CUNY) and an organizer of the event, dubbed Border of Lights.
Historians have estimated that anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000 civilians were killed over five days in early October in 1937. It remains unclear why exactly Trujillo ordered the killings, although some theories suggest it was part of an effort to whiten the Dominican race.
It was called the Parsley Massacre because in some cases soldiers held a sprig of parsley and asked the victims to pronounce it in Spanish ( perejil). Creole-speaking Haitians could be identified by their difficultly pronouncing the “R” in the word. They were killed if they could not say it correctly.
In a diplomatic cable to President Franklin Roosevelt, the U.S. ambassador to the country called it “a systematic campaign of extermination … directed against all Haitian residents” by Trujillo.
Many Dominicans, however, know little about the event. On Thursday, event organizers asked residents to jot down their understanding of the massacre on post cards.
Some said the massacre was sparked by an invasion from Haiti. Others were dismissive of commemorating it.