Five weeks after they shipwrecked on a tiny, deserted island, a group of weary and frightened Haitian refugees were returned today to the homeland they tried desperately to flee.
More than 100 boat people stumbled off the old Bahamian tender Lady Moore at noon. They were dehydrated and dazed, and some were on stretchers.
They had spent more than a month marooned on the Bahamian island of Cayo Lobos, off the coast of Cuba, where five of them died while three governments and a United Nations agency haggled over whose responsibility they were.
Forcibly removed with clubs and tear gas by Bahamian police, they were brought here today along with 100 other Haitians freed from a Bahamian jail, where they had been held as illegal aliens.
Although their government met the Haitians with coffee, juice and a free bus ride home to their villiage -- all under the watchful eyes of several dozen reporters -- the refugees' leader maintained that they feared punishment. d
"We sold everything to go to Miami," 25-year-old sculptor Claude Pierre said. "They will beat us up, kill us, put us in jail."
The Haitian government has denied reports that the tens of thousands of refugees who leave here in overcrowded, leaky boats for the United States are fleeing political persecution, and that they are subjected to harassment, or worse, if they return. But whether they are looking for political freedom -- as attorneys representing some Haitian emigrants assert -- or fleeing the grinding poverty of their homeland, they are unwelcome wherever they land.
The boatland of sick men and women arriving at Port-au-Prince today was perhaps the most poignant illustration so far that both the United States and the Bahamas feel they are saturated with illegal refugees and are determined to stop the flood.
These boat people were discovered on Cayo Lobos by the U.S. Coast Guard Oct. 9 after the small sailboat whose captain they had paid to take them to Miami in late September sank in a storm. However, the castaways' existence and circumstances were closely guarded by the U.S., Bahamian and Haitian governments for weeks while the three haggled over what to do with them.
The Coast Guard, which apparently issued orders to refuse to answer all press inquiries on the situation, dropped food and water to the Haitians, while the Bahamas refused responsibility for them, and Haiti refused to pay for their repatriation.
In the middle of last week, following requests by private human rights and refugee organizations that deal with Haitians in the United States, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees became involved. The U.N. agency offered to help the Bahamian government determine the refugee's status and even to take responsibility for them until a third country could be found to take them.
Although the Lady Moore picked them up Thursday to take them home, the Bahamians kept the ship off Haiti for 36 hours, variously claiming bad weather and mechanical problems while negotiations went on over the Haitian's fate. Some of the stranded Haitians earlier had told U.S. reporters they would rather die than go back to Haiti and resisted efforts by the Bahamian police to evacuate them.
Then the Bahamian government issued a statement saying that "if the United Nations or the United States government are prepared to accept full responsibility for all illegal immigrants in the Bahamas," the Bahamas would consider turning over the group and stopping the ship on its way to Port-au-Prince. There are between 20,000 and 40,000 illegal immigrants in the Bahamas.
An acceptable offer, the statement said, "would have to be received within eight hours." When the deadline expired at 10:30 last night, the Lady Moore lifted anchor and continued its journey to Haiti.
The story of this group of 102 people began on Sept. 22 when, like thousands of Haitians before them, they paid $250 to $300 apiece to board a boat headed for Miami, in search of a better life.
As they said in interviews after landing today, they floated aimlessly for 17 days.
"We drank sea water," one said. "We got sick." Apparently in despair, four of them reportedly jumped overboard and drowned.
A U.S. Coast Guard pilot spotted the group, waving white cloths, on Cayo Lobos, a deserted island the size of a football field on the southern edge of the Bahama Channel, 26 miles off the Cuban coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported the sighting to the Bahamian government, which asked the United States for humanitarian help.
Four times in the following weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard dropped supplies of food and water and once landed a cutter, whose paramedics examined the group, including two pregnant women and five dead.
The Bahamian government reportedly asked the Haitian authorities four times to pick up the marooned refugees, but Haiti refused.
When it was clear that neither the Haitain nor the Bahamian governments were going to rescue the refugees rapidly, the U.S. Coast Guard apparently was giving instructions to stonewall press inquiries about the incident.
According to the Miami Herald, whose reporter saw and copied it, a "press guidance" memo was put into the Cayo Lobos file on Oct. 20. The mem, according to Herald, said, "Do not release any detailed information on this incident. Refer all inquiries to the Bahamian government. Do not speculate on any facts in this case." The newspaper reported that further instructions had been penciled in the margin saying. "Try to avoid releasing this information. Reason: it will bring more and more media calls to this office after the press learns that the Bahamian government will give them few answers."
Florida state officials familiar with U.S. Coast Guard operations said that the Coast Guard in the past has frequently rescued endangered boat people outside U.S. territorial waters and once had picked up 33 anit-Castro Cubans stranded on Cayo Lobos. But diplomatic observers here said the Coast Guard's decision on the Haitians may have been influenced by the Carter administration's problems in dealing with more than 100,000 new Cuban refugees in Florida and officials' reluctant to add to the tens of thousands of Haitians already in the Miami area.
Finally, on White House instructions, U.S. officials on Nov. 6 reportedly began to press the Bahamian and Haitian governments to take action and rescue the Cayos Lobos people.
The six-week stay on the deserted key, which has only an automatic lighthouse, had clearly taken its toll on the Haitans. Looking haggard, they shuffled into a port pavillion, where Haitian government officials, faced with a large group of U.S. reporters and TV crews, had clearly done its utmost to receive them well.
They were given peach juice, bread and infant formula. Many were too weak to walk or eat and were given dextrose intravenously by Red Cross workers. Those rushed to hospitals included the two pregnant women and one man who had two fractured ribs, which he told Red Cross doctors he received when Bahamian police beat the refugees when they refused to leave Cayo Lobos.
The Red Cross doctors said a number of the other refugees had suffered bruises, apparently from beatings.